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Sharks coach John Morris.

John Morris is refusing to allow salary cap issues, instability in the club's administration and being unable to play home games at Shark Park to be excuses for Cronulla this season and has set a top-four goal for his team.

With the Sharks unlikely to be in a position to make a significant signing until 2022, critics have all but written them off as premiership contenders.

However, Morris believes they are overlooking the fact he has dramatically revamped Cronulla's playing style, as well as their roster, in the past 12 months.

"I get sick of hearing that the Sharks need to play a tough, gritty, grinding style of footy," Morris said. "Says who?

"It's a completely different team from the one that won the comp in 2016 and we have a completely different playing style."

Despite Wade Graham (15 matches), Matt Moylan (14), Aaron Woods (10), Andrew Fifita and Shaun Johnson (both eight) missing large periods of last season, the Sharks only missed a final four berth because of goal kicking after scoring the third most tries (92) and conceding the fifth fewest (73).

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It was an encouraging sign for the future and with injuries to Moylan and Josh Dugan the Sharks line-up for round one is set to feature up to nine players who 23 years old or younger. 

Yet Morris isn't afraid to declare that the Sharks can secure a place in the top four this season.

"Our whole focus this pre-season is having a top-four mindset with everything we do," Morris said. "The way we train on the field, off the field, the intensity of training, the standards at training and having a top four defence because no one has won it from outside the top four."

Playing to strengths

From the outside, that would seem like a remarkable achievement given the hurdles that have been thrown at Morris in his first head coaching assignment.

Chairman Dino Mezzatesta was this week appointed as the club's third CEO during Morris's short tenure so far, while redevelopment of Sharks Leagues Club has forced Cronulla to play home games at Kogarah for the next two seasons.

Morris has also had to overhaul Cronulla's roster after the Sharks were forced to field a team worth $350,000 less than their opponents as a penalty for salary cap breaches uncovered before he started the job.

However, few were more aware than Morris of the young talent coming through the ranks at Woolooware and he altered the team's playing style to capitalise on Briton Nikora's line running on the right edge and Bronson Xerri's speed on the left.

With all but four members of Cronulla's 2016 premiership-winning squad gone, the new-look Sharks no longer rely on forward power and grinding wins but shifting the ball to their potent attacking edges.

The remaining Sharks from their 2016 grand final win.
The remaining Sharks from their 2016 grand final win. ©NRL Photos

In 2019, only back-to-back premiers the Sydney Roosters made more passes than the Sharks and their enterprising play paid off.

Cronulla scored 35 tries on the left edge where Xerri plays outside Graham and 38 on the right side, where Johnson and Nikora will this season be joined by returning centre Jesse Ramien.

"Wade Graham is a ball playing back-rower with a kicking game, so you'd be silly not to play to those strengths," Morris said.

"[Hooker] Blayke Brailey is a different player to [brother] Jayden and we will look to use his skills a lot more this year so that should change our game. Jesse Ramien will change our game with his block-busting runs out of the back field and Brayden Uele is a point of difference for us."

Character over talent

There will be more new faces this season, with rookie forwards Toby Rudolf and Franklin Pele impressing in trials against Canterbury and Manly.

However, Morris is cautious about who he hands jerseys to and trips to the bushfire-affected NSW South Coast and Papua New Guinea have enabled him to assess the qualities of young players.

"It is important for me because I like to see how they are off the field," Morris said. "I am pretty big on character-over-talent type thing so if I am going to bring kids in I like to sit back and see how they handle those things. They have just passed with flying colours, all these kids.

"To take them out of their comfort zone into a foreign country like Papua New Guinea, what I get out of that as a coach is just massive – the giving back, that selflessness and gratitude.

"Culturally I think we are doing some really good things, with the PNG trip and the bushfire appeal we came up with. We did an auction and the players just bought into it. They were bringing in gear and eventually we held a team camp in Kiama and we went to Kangaroo Valley."  

When Morris gave Nikora his NRL debut in round one of last year's competition, even other members of the Cronulla coaching staff questioned whether he should pick a more experienced forward but within three months the 22-year-old was playing for New Zealand.

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Xerri, Brailey, winger Ronaldo Mulitalo, fullback Will Kennedy and lock Billy Magoulias also made their NRL debuts last season after coming through the Sharks Academy, which Morris helped establish in 2015 as the club's elite development coach.

"I had six debutants last year and I think that was the most in the club's history," Morris said. "Some people would never have known of these guys.

"No-one would have known of Mulitalo, and not many people knew of Nikora before he made his debut but I had seen him run those good lines over and over again, and that's what Johnson needs.

"Obviously it is good way of managing your salary cap at the top if you get kids in early so you don't have to pay development fees, and they want to stay to play for their own club."

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No big signings before 2022

Nikora, Brailey, Kennedy, Magoulias, Hamlin-Uele and back-rower Jack Williams were all re-signed last season, while Morris hopes to convince 19-year-old Xerri to extend his deal with the club beyond 2021.  

With the Sharks again forced to spend $350,000 less than other clubs this season, Morris has lost more than 900 matches of NRL experience after the departures of Paul Gallen (348). Matt Prior (253), Sosaia Feki (148), Jayden Brailey (69), Kurt Capewell (64), Aaron Gray (49) and Kyle Flanagan (nine).

Josh Morris (286 NRL appearances) is also expected to leave before June 30 to join Sydney Roosters.

After years of recruiting big names such as Luke Lewis, James Maloney, Michael Ennis, Josh Dugan, Moylan and Johnson, it is unlikely Cronulla will be able to make another significant signing before 2022.

"I have got to navigate through it and I think we are doing a pretty good job but it really gets under my skin that people judge us with all these different circumstances against the team that won it in 2016," Morris said.

"In 2015, 2016 and 2017 it was a very experienced team but we have had 30 players leave the club since 2016. Other teams have won it recently and gone from the top to rock bottom but last year if we had kicked a couple of goals we would have finished in the top four."

Morris has had to deal with more turmoil in one year than some coaches face in their entire careers but he holds no fears of the challenge ahead and believes the Sharks can still be a premiership force this season.

"My whole goal is trying to set the club up for long term sustainable success by getting through this transition period of cleaning our cap up, bringing our gun juniors through and getting a new leagues club in two years," Morris said.

"But our fans expect us to win because we have still got a good roster and that's my focus. We are challenged with our depth but I believe we have got a team to win it and I think we can."