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Craig finds success at Sharks but won’t be as easy for new coaches at other clubs

Fans at several fan bases are clinging to the hope that the new coach bounce will deliver instant results for their NRL team in 2023.

Well, maybe not the Wests Tigers, where everything old is new again with Tim Sheens coming back on board more than a decade after he was punted. Perhaps in 2025 they will benefit when Benji Marshall takes over. Maybe.

The Craig Fitzgibbon Effect is what supporters at the Bulldogs and Warriors are praying to see, as well as large sections of the Titans, Knights and definitely Dragons fan bases where each coach is on shaky ground.

Fitzgibbon has made an immediate impact at Cronulla after serving a lengthy coaching apprenticeship at the Roosters, taking a team that could not beat top-eight sides last year to a share of second spot heading into Saturday night’s daunting trip to face the runaway competition leaders, Penrith, at the premiers’ home ground, BlueBet Stadium.

But for every Fitzgibbon who turns a team around in less than a season there are several coaches who fail to make a dent and can be chewed up and spat out of the NRL coaching ranks before seeing out their first contract.

When Michael Hagan took Newcastle to a premiership in his first year as a coach in 2001 and Ricky Stuart did likewise the following year at the Roosters, young coaches were all the rage.

The NRL is a copycat league in many ways and other clubs fast-tracked recently retired players like Paul Langmack, Nathan Brown and Tony Kemp with limited success.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 18: Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon watches on during the warm-up before the round 15 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Gold Coast Titans at , on June 18, 2022, in Coffs Harbour, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

No matter how good a rookie coach is or how long he’s served an apprenticeship under whichever multiple premiership-winning mentor, achieving success at NRL clubs is never as simple as turning the keys over to the “next big thing” of the clipboard brigade.

Fitzgibbon has received praise for waiting for the best opportunity to come 

up but why did the Sharks fit that description? 

Because they were a team already on the up – they had cleared out a lot of the veterans from the 2016 premiership-winning team and predecessor John Morris deserves plenty of credit for blooding several stars of the future during his aborted three-year tenure.

Blayke Brailey, Braydon Trindall, Teig Wilton, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Briton Nikora and Tuby Rudolf were each handed their debut by Morris while Braden Hamlin-Uele, Will Kennedy, Connor Tracey and Sione Katoa had only played minimal NRL matches before he made them permanent first-graders.

He also rescued Siosifa Talakai from three years in the proverbial wilderness to now become an Origin representative. 

Fitzgibon had a solid base of talent, added a few astute signings in Melbourne’s Mr Fix-It Nicho Hynes to play halfback, and Storm veteran Dale Finucane and Dragons skipper Cameron McInnes to shore up the pack.

None of the teams currently struggling on the final six rungs of the ladder, as well as the incoming Dolphins, have anywhere near that level of young playing talent for a new coach to transform into title contenders.

Canterbury, with Viliame Kikau and Reed Mahoney, next year joining 2022 star recruits Josh Addo-Carr and Matt Burton at the club are probably the most likely of the cellar dwellers to rise.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 21: Panthers assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo looks on during the round 11 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Penrith Panthers at Sydney Cricket Ground, on May 21, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Panthers assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Panthers assistant Cameron Ciraldo has been likened to Fitzgibbon for his tactical nous and decision to patiently bide his time as Ivan Cleary’s understudy.

If he fills the Bulldogs vacancy, as has been widely tipped, he will be facing an uphill battle to transform the rest of the roster into a team that is a finals contender.

Young fullback Jake Averillo has enormous potential and a few forwards are reliable but there will still be several deficiencies across the park at the Dogs.

Fitzy’s focus unwavering

Fitzgibbon’s next mammoth task is to prove the Sharks are not just happy to be there in the finals but worthy contenders for the crown.

And there’d no better way to showcase that than by upsetting the premiers on Saturday night.

Coming off impressive performances over the Storm and Cowboys to make it five wins on the trot, the Sharks have been largely unaffected by the representative period.

Talakai was their only player who received any Origin game time and Mulitalo, Katoa, Nikora their only representatives in the Pacific Tests.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 07: Jesse Ramien of the Sharks scores a try that was then overturned due to dropped in goal during the round 17 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Melbourne Storm at PointsBet Stadium, on July 07, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Jesse Ramien. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Compare that with the Panthers who had 14 players adding to their NRL workload – seven NSW players as well as Viliame Kikau, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Charlie Staines, Taylan May, Spencer Leniu and Izack Tago on international duty.

You would think capping off a five-game winning streak with a 26-12 upset in Townsville would satisfy the coach but not so with Fitzgibbon.

“We’ve just been building. We’ve started to win a couple of games in different fashions, we’ve had to grind a few out, we’ve won well on other occasions. We’ve enjoyed the process of finding ways to win and we’re confident with our preparation,” he said.

“We will have to be close to our best to be serious [against Penrith]. It’s the ultimate test at the moment, as far as NRL standards go. 

“You’re always searching for an improvement or some gains in your performance and I just felt like we were short in a few areas last week but on the main I was happy with our attitude and the result.”

Becoming true contenders

History has shown in the NRL that to win a premiership you need a top-class playmaker and Cronulla head into the business end of the season with a former representative star in Matt Moylan at five-eighth and a fringe Origin candidate in Hynes.

While he is not considered among the elite halves like Daly Cherry-Evans, Jahrome Hughes and Saturday night’s opposite number Nathan Cleary, the coach has faith that Hynes will exhaust himself physically as well as all his options on the field to ensure his team is victorious every time he pulls on the black, white and blue No.7 jersey.

“One thing about Nicho, I think, when you watch him play, he’s always at it,” Fitzgibbon said. 

“He’s been incredibly consistent in that every time he takes the field he doesn’t stop, like his output, his workrate, his effort and his enthusiasm is pretty relentless. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 10: Nicholas Hynes of the Sharks passes during the warm-up before the round five NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Wests Tigers at PointsBet Stadium, on April 10, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“I don’t see any game Nicho’s played for us where he hasn’t gone out and had a crack whether he’s got it right or wrong. He’s always having a maximum output there.”

He has been forced to reshuffle his outside backs with Katoa tearing a pectoral muscle while diving over to score a long-range try against North Queensland, ruling him out for the rest of the season.

Tracey has switched to the right wing with Talakai coming back into left centre after getting a week off after his debut Origin campaign.

“He’s a really infectious player for our team,” Fitzgibbon said.

“We’re extremely confident he can move to that position and do a good job for us. When you watch him, he’s all heart, he’s all effort, 100 miles an hour. The players trust him and love him so he’s definitely a good in for us.”

Fitzgibbon is much more comfortable talking up his players than soaking up praise for his efforts in taking the team from ninth last year to a chance at finishing in the top two. 

“We’re really proud of how much work with put in and the consistency level we’ve found this season. We’ve had a tough last couple of weeks, you just can’t jump too far ahead.

“You don’t want to take stock, we don’t want to sign off on where we’re at, at this stage. We just want to continually strengthen. 

“I don’t think it’d be wise of us to be too happy with where we’re at because we’ve got to find some more levels and we’ve got to constantly try to push that.”



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