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Morris certain youth can take Sharks deeper into finals

Having spent the past two years developing a young roster, John Morris now wants Cronulla to make some noise in the finals.

The Sharks have reached the first week of the playoffs in both of his campaigns as head coach despite some serious adversity. 

Repeated injuries to key players and salary cap penalties provided ongoing challenges in the season gone. And that's not mentioning the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Off contract beyond 2021, Morris said he was hopeful of earning an extension sooner rather than later. The club has not given a time frame for a decision.

He may be in the dark in that regard, but Morris is certain of Cronulla's potential. With a host of youngsters flourishing and more experience under his belt, the 40-year-old is confident.

"You get better every year and you get more aware of the players and the team and how the team is building," Morris told NRL.com.

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"I've seen a real improvement in a lot of our youth that's come into the squad. I've debuted 11 rookies over the last two years.

"To see those guys really develop and now become first-year, second-year NRL players is a real joy that I get as coach.

"We managed to play finals footy for my first two years, which I think has been a good achievement. Both years we've obviously bowed out earlier than I'd like. We've been there at the right time of year, we've just got to show some improvement so we can go deeper."

The salary cap restrictions have now been lifted from the Sharks. They had $353,000 shaved off their limit in the 2019 and 2020 seasons as punishment for historical breaches.

The contracts of Josh Dugan, Aaron Woods, Matt Moylan and Shaun Johnson expire after 2021. Important calls will have to be made.

Cronulla could also scour the market and Morris said security with his position would make it easier to plan for 2022 and beyond.

"An earlier decision on [my contract] allows me to go out and target the players I want to and really continue to build the future for the Cronulla Sharks," Morris said.

"You see clubs now like Canterbury signing Matt Burton [for 2022] ... My role as head coach is to oversee recruitment and retention. I plan to do that as far as I can. 

"And Darren Mooney's just joined us as general manager of football. We had a month or six weeks with no GM of footy. So now Darren has come in, no doubt we'll up the ante in all things recruitment."

Sharks coach John Morris.
Sharks coach John Morris. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The only big-name signing this off-season has been former Canterbury prop Aiden Tolman.

"He just brings outstanding character," the coach said.

"He brings experience, he's a proven winner, he's played in a number of grand finals for the Storm and the Bulldogs. He just stands for everything that I want to develop at our club in terms of working hard, he trains every session, he gives his all every session."

Johnson was the Sharks' standout in 2020, winning the club's Player of the Year award. He produced a league-high 23 try assists before suffering an Achilles injury in round 19.

There are a few players in line to replace the playmaker as he continues to rehab over the early stages of the 2021 season.

"Connor Tracey - he finished the year [at five-eighth] and he deserved to be there based on his efforts all year," Morris said.

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"It was a good reward for him to play five-eighth in the finals and I thought he did a really good job. He's going to be in with as good a chance as anyone.

"We've got Matt Moylan, depending on if I play him in the halves or not. He's obviously had some challenges with getting his body right and I think he may be suited to playing in the halves in the early parts of the year until Shaun gets back.

"We've also got a couple of exciting options in our youngsters there in Braydon Trindall and also Luke Metcalf comes back to the club from Manly. I think he'll also throw his hat in the ring.

"That's what pre-season's all about, to work hard and to really put yourself out there and grab one of those starting spots." 

Only three players remain from Cronulla's 2016 premiership team - Chad Townsend, Wade Graham and Andrew Fifita.

It's testament to Morris's work that the side has remained competitive despite the sizeable transition. The finals streak now stands at six straight years.

Asked what most excites him most about the season ahead, Morris again referred to his promising youth, mentioning players like Will Kennedy, Teig Wilton, Blayke Brailey and Ronaldo Mulitalo.

Josh Dugan is off contract after the 2021 season.
Josh Dugan is off contract after the 2021 season. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

He's also keen to watch the continued development of forwards Toby Rudolf, Royce Hunt, Siosifa Talakai and Braden Hamlin-Uele.

"I felt they were a real shining light for us [in 2020], Talakai actually won our Players' Player award," Morris said.

"Both he and Hunt came to us as train and trial players at the start of the year and were great success stories."