There is little doubt Morris’ departure could’ve been handled better.
“But tell me one in the history of this code that’s been done well,” asked Mezzatesta, who replaced Russell as chief executive in March last year. “When is it an easy decision, in any business? When you make these calls, you do so because you know what’s right for the long-term viability of the club.
“Was it poorly handled? You’re racing against a clock, then trying to calm down a situation that’s already getting out of control, then you get media carnage … as a leader, you have to accelerate the process, and we did.
“We had to accelerate the process because of the carnage that was happening publicly. That’s unfortunate, but that’s our game. The minute we speak to individuals, and more than two people in our game know something, you lose control of the narrative straight away.
“As hard as you try to do things respectfully, and in an orderly fashion, and the way normal business operates, we don’t have that luxury in rugby league. If someone can share with me what a better process is, let me know.”
It took everything but a crowbar to get Mezzatesta to break his silence on Morris’ departure, which is a naivety on his part. Few have ever fixed a public relations train crash by saying nothing.
And the Sharks do have a good story to tell. The way Mezzatesta and the board have been painted this week ignores just how far the club has come on their watch.
Once the game’s poorest cousins, the Sharks have $4 million in sponsorship with no space left to sell on their playing kit.
They’ve turned a $5.5 million loss into a small profit, which is remarkable considering the devastation of COVID-19 last year and the fact the club has been relocated to Kogarah as Sharkies Leagues Club undergoes a major development.
More than that, the fact the Sharks can land the most sought-after assistant in the business in Fitzgibbon – who knocked back arch-rivals St George Illawarra just a few months ago – explains just how far they’ve come.
The club wants a regular seat in the top four, pushing for a premiership, not just creep into the finals and then fail against the better sides.
Mezzatesta took on the job a week after COVID-19 struck. Before that, he was the chief financial officer at The Star.
If the pocket-sized Sicilian ever needed a reminder of the difference between the cold operation of a casino and the highly emotive business of professional sport, this week has delivered it.
Much of the discussion has been around Mezzatesta apparently telling Morris at a meeting on Monday that his job was secure, that he was the frontrunner in “pole position”, before being told to pack up his office on Tuesday afternoon.
“That’s interesting,” Mezzatesta says. “It was a positive meeting because we didn’t go at each other’s throats. We had an adult conversation. But it certainly wasn’t me saying, ‘You’re in pole position’.
“That meeting was pre-arranged, between me and John’s manager, Chris Orr. John turned up because of the activities of Sunday when the media erupted over what was happening. That was fine by me. But for that to be presented that this was the first time that I have met with him [about extending his contract] is rubbish. We work together. All I said to John, ‘You’ve had the inside lane because you’re the incumbent. The board knows you’.”
Fitzgibbon has been linked to the job for months. He’s been linked to a lot of jobs. But claims that a deal had been sealed weeks ago appear wide of the mark.
Loyal to a fault, Fitzgibbon didn’t sign the contract until late on Tuesday when he informed Roosters chairman Nick Politis.
Should Morris have been given more time to prove himself?
He’d mopped up the mess left by Flanagan, which included a reduced salary cap top-heavy with overpaid players who were perennially injured or underperformed.
He’d blooded many young players, who had been in the system for years, mostly under his influence.
On his watch, in difficult circumstances, the Sharks finished seventh and then eighth.
Some argue that should have been enough for Morris to keep his job, even though the Sharks never progressed further than the first week.
Others realise the fact the Sharks reached the finals shows just how weak the NRL competition has become. The difference between the handful of genuine contenders and the rest is concerning.
The philosophy at the powerhouse clubs is that nobody is bigger than the club itself. Who truly believes Morris would be a premiership-winning coach of the future?
At Monday’s meeting with Mezzatesta, he presented a one-page document explaining why he should have his contract extended.
The board was left underwhelmed, leaving it with a clear decision: back or sack him?
It’s usually at this point where clubs struggle with the next move.
Remember Des Hasler at the Bulldogs? That board wrestled with that decision for months, then inexplicably re-signed him, then sacked him and was forced into paying him out.
With $3 million to spend on 14 spots in the top 30 next year, the Sharks had to make sure they backed the right coach.
“No one in the club has ever intended to bring malice or harm to John,” Mezzatesta said. “He’s a great, stand-up individual. Being the incumbent, he’s there, so we know him. But he needs to be matched up with the other candidates.”
Much like Michael Maguire and Trent Robinson, Fitzgibbon has been considered the next big thing in coaching for several years. Not far behind is Panthers assistant Cameron Ciraldo, who may still join Fitzgibbon in the Shire.
Then there’s Craig Bellamy, who remains in discussions with the Sharks about joining them as a coaching director.
“I know people are saying we’re a million-to-one with Craig Bellamy,” Mezzatesta said. “But he’s indicated the whole time that he’s considering the Cronulla Sharks. I have no reason not to believe that. We want to emulate what the big clubs have achieved. If you’re looking to the future, it’s about getting the right people. Getting Craig Fitzgibbon is the first step towards that.”
Time will tell if Mezzatesta and his board are the right people in control of Cronulla – but they’ve already come a long way from that meeting in December 2018.
Greenberg confirmed the meeting took place but didn’t want to elaborate publicly on the details.
But what happened just a day later served as a reminder how nobody keeps secrets in this game; whether it’s about a club’s next coach, a potential player signing, or its very survival.
“We explained to them that we’d be OK because there would be $9 million coming in over the next three or four months,” Mezzatesta explained. “That number never existed. I made it up. But within 24 hours it was in the newspaper.”
“If you look at a cake there is still three-quarters of the cake to eat, so that’s what excites me.” The pressure of coaching the Broncos is starting to take its toll on Kevin Walters – after five rounds. Now who wants cake?
Following the suicide of several people in the rugby league community, Jason Austin decided to ride from Griffith to the Central Coast, covering 1200 kilometres over eight days, to raise money for Beyond Blue. You can donate at fundraise.beyondblue.org.au/ride4utimetosurvive.
Souths chairman Nick Pappas′ smackdown of Adam Reynolds in The Australian, in which he effectively accused the captain of running a PR campaign against the club, was appalling. Reynolds speaks openly while the club spins the narrative behind the scenes.
It’s a big weekend for …
The undefeated Sydney Swans and battling GWS Giants in the Battle of the Bridge at the SCG on Saturday. When the Swans are going well, AFL in Sydney is going well.
It’s an even bigger weekend for …
Chris Waller’s Verry Elleegant as it staves off challengers from Addeybb, Sir Dragonet and Mugatoo in the $4m Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2000m) on day two of The Championships on Saturday.
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Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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