Fitzgibbon's NRL wait pays off for Sharks

·4-min read

Craig Fitzgibbon waited plenty of time for the right job to come along.

If on Saturday he can guide Cronulla past South Sydney to the club's first preliminary final since 2018, then the wait will have been worth it.

Assistants of successful coaches are often positioned as the next cab off the rank.

Over the past three years whenever an NRL head coaching vacancy came up, Fitzgibbon's name was always tossed up as a solution for a struggling club.

St George Illawarra, Newcastle and the Warriors all enquired but it wasn't until Cronulla called last year that the jiu jitsu-loving surfer took the plunge to leave the Sydney Roosters.

"I think he wanted to repay the Roosters for giving him his first shot," said former Roosters teammate Anthony Minichiello.

"He bided his time. I thought a few years ago he should've taken a few jobs that came up but he was patient and I think that's a good trait."

Minichiello was there when his former teammate returned from a career swan song in the Super League with Hull FC in 2012.

Fitzgibbon wasn't quite sure about his direction at that point and was floating between roles under Brian Smith.

It was there that he spent hours in the Roosters' offices with the club's under-20s coach Jason Taylor.

When Smith made way for Trent Robinson ahead of the 2013 season, Taylor suggested Fitzgibbon as a potential candidate to coach the defence.

"I could see he could be a good coach because he had the right mindset," Taylor said.

"He really knew the players and I told Robbo 'he's the guy'. I probably went out on a limb for him, didn't I?

"To jump into that role (in 2013) was a learning curve. You look back now and have a laugh at some of the sessions with Robbo thinking: 'What is this s**t?' He learned fast and only needed to be told once."

That first season the Roosters' defence kept a record six teams to nil, won a minor premiership and defeated Manly to win the grand final.

"He was a natural at coaching," said Minichiello. "As a coach you need to critique players and Fitzy was mates with a lot of us.

"Some people might find that change hard, but he didn't make it weird at all."

Two further premierships followed in 2018 and 2019 and Fitzgibbon supplemented his experience at the Roosters with time under State of Origin coach Brad Fittler with the NSW Blues and NSW Country as well as with Tim Sheens' Kangaroos side.

But when John Morris was sacked in April last year, Fitzgibbon was the man on Cronulla's radar.

The Sharks had been treading water since Shane Flanagan's exit at the end of 2019 but with a good core of young players they were an attractive proposition.

Fitzgibbon's first move was to make a statement.

Three of the club's highest-paid earners - Josh Dugan, Shaun Johnson and Chad Townsend - were all shown the door within a few weeks of his announcement as Cronulla coach.

In turn, Fitzgibbon brought in Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes - an on-ball half with the desire to run first - to guide his game plan.

"Those players had lots of experience and for Fitzy to go with the side he wanted was a tough decision," said hooker Blayke Brailey.

"But it has worked and it's showing on the field.

"He laid down the ground rules when he first came in and how he wanted to play so it's easy to know what you need to do for the team."

Fitzgibbon has managed to turn prop Royce Hunt into an established first-grader, revitalised five-eighth Matt Moylan and has squeezed the juice out of an ageing Andrew Fifita.

"Fitzy was transparent with me when he first came in," said Fifita, now an impact player from the bench.

"He just said: 'this is your job and what I want you to do for the team'."

Under the watch of assistant coaches Steve Price and Josh Hannay, Cronulla's defence and attack is their best in 20 years after they finished second for the first time since 1999.

Hynes could well scoop the Dally M award later this year and will be key on Saturday if Fitzgibbon is to guide the Sharks into a preliminary final.

It's a lot to take on for a first-year coach but Minichiello believes his old teammate was made for games like this.

"He's always been calm under pressure," Minichiello said.

"I think that comes across in his persona and I think if you're a player, that gives you confidence.

"That's the sort of person you want with you in the trenches."