NRL 2022 | How Cronulla Sharks assistant coach Josh Hannay brought the fun back to practice

Rugby league is under high pressure and relentless – that’s why Sharks assistant coach Josh Hannay’s cheekiness is paying off, on and off the pitch, writes LACHLAN McKIRDY.

Queensland’s new coaching staff have received plenty of praise following their victory over the heavily favored Blues this year.

The presence of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston could not be denied.

Yet it was another of Slater’s aides who was singled out for recognition.

“When the QRL asked me to be the coach of this team, my first priority was to put the right people around them. Guys like Josh Hannay. He knows what this team means to Queensland. But he’s also a great footballing spirit,” Slater said.

It’s an experience that will stay with Hannay forever.

In 10 years of training from Souths Logan Magpies in 2013, Hannay thinks he will need another 50 years before anything matches what he felt when Queensland concluded the series.

“I hope to be in the coaching game for many years to come, but maybe I won’t have as good a night as that night. It was the best game of football I think we’ve seen for a long time,” Hannay told CODE Sports.

“A special experience and coming back from there to coach at Cronulla has only made me a better coach again.”

He might have to rethink those feelings if the Sharks can go all the way in 2022.

Just as he was an integral part of Slater in his maiden triumph, Hannay was Craig Fitzgibbon’s right-hand man in Cronulla’s unlikely rise to the top.

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Sharks co-captain Wade Graham admits he didn’t know much about Hannay until he arrived in Cronulla for the 2021 season as John Morris’ assistant.

But it had an immediate impact.

“By the time he walked through the door, it only took me a few team meetings,” Graham told CODE Sports.

“The way he spoke and communicated, my respect for him is on par with some of the best coaches I’ve ever had.

“He understands it, he understands it.”

By ‘it’, Graham is not just referring to rugby league, but more specifically to what the Sharks are trying to create.

Hannay took over the reins last season after Morris left. The interim appointment was always going to be brief with Cronulla fast to secure Fitzgibbon’s services from 2022.

Still, it’s rare to see interim managers stay with the club who haven’t appointed them to the full-time position.

Dean Young is now an assistant with the Cowboys after his brief stint in charge with the Dragons. Hannay himself left the Cowboys after Todd Payten took charge.

The caliber of Cronulla’s team and early talks with Fitzgibbon kept Hannay in the Shire.

“From my first conversations with Craig, I made it very clear to him that I wanted to stay because I was so impressed with the playgroup,” Hannay said.

“I loved training them. I saw so much potential and growth.

“As the signings started happening with Nicho [Hynes] and Dale [Finucane]I just knew that with these guys coming into the group that we had, I was convinced that would be the recipe for success.

This also had a ripple effect on Cronulla’s team. This both eased Fitzgibbon’s transition into the role and gave the band a belief that his potential was worth being a part of.

“He’s a vital member of our team and he definitely has the credentials and the experience to be a head coach,” Blayke Brailey told CODE Sports.

“He’s an even better guy off the pitch as well.”

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One of Fitzgibbon’s first decisions this season was to give Hannay the Cronulla offense.

“He’s a very defensive coach,” Hannay said. “So I think he thought it was a good way for me to lead the attack.

“I focused on the style we want to play and what our identity will be from an attacking point of view.”

Few expected Cronulla’s form to turn around in 2022, but they claimed the top two for the first time since 1999.

Although Fitzgibbon had a big impact on their defense, much of their success was due to their game-changing offense.

The Sharks scored 23.9 points per game in 2022 (down from 21.7 in 2021). Hynes leads the competition in assists and Ronaldo Mulitalo is the NRL’s fourth-highest try scorer with 16, the best return of his career.

“It’s no coincidence that we score so many points,” said Brailey. “[Josh] has all these big plays and all these outside backs charging hard for us.

One of these pieces, the sling, has been well documented. Fullback Will Kennedy will hit the ball at pace to create space and a simple overlap for his outside backs.

Although he had a lot of ideas up his sleeve, Hannay knew it would be important to keep things simple whenever possible. The NRL is very different from when he played, in a career that spanned nearly 200 games.

“You have to adapt and play a fast style to match the pace of the game,” says Hannay.

“Ruck speed is critical to how we play and how we can attack.

“It was important that we put in place a style that would carry over from week to week, no matter who we were playing against.

“That consistency has allowed our guys to really improve and have a better understanding.

“Yeah, we’ll tinker around a bit and we’ll throw odd set pieces, but I like to think we’re not really a set-piece football team. We try more to create mismatches in the defensive line and then expose.

It’s a strategy easier said than done, but as the Sharks prepare to host their first home final in Cronulla since 2008, it has paid off.

And the players know they have Hannay to thank.

“He knows what he wants the players to do on the pitch and his message to get the message across is clear,” Graham said.

“It’s chaos, isn’t it?” The game is chaotic. But amid the chaos, you have to play with that clear head, and Josh gives the boys the information they need in the chaos to get the job done, which is half the battle.

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During any Sharks training session at PointsBet Stadium, you are bound to see an opposite edge drill.

Jesse Ramien will line up against Siosifa Talakai. Ronaldo Mulitalo takes on Sione Katoa, when fit.

It’s not a unique exercise for Cronulla, but it’s intense. And that passion extends to the assistant coaches who take charge.

“[Josh] and the other coaches have a bit of a rivalry there when we do the peak practice drills,” says Brailey.

“He’s still part of our attacking side, so whenever he can throw a little joke on defense, he makes sure he does it.”

Hannay thinks it’s important to leverage that competitive advantage in training and replicate match conditions as consistently as possible.

“The boys are competitive. That’s why they got to where they are with football, they’re competitive beasts,” says Hannay.

“The more competitive we can as coaches make our training, the more it brings out the best in players.”

It’s part of Hannay and the coaching staff’s mission to keep the energy around the group light. As Brailey describes it: “He brings fun to training.”

Much of this stems from Hannay’s own experiences in rugby league. Having coached at different levels of the game, he has seen firsthand the varied impact that being a professional athlete can have.

It may be a short career, so he wants to make sure the players enjoy it as much as possible.

“It’s a tough industry and it’s a long season and I think if players come to work every day feeling overwhelmed by the game and the pressures, that can definitely impact a player,” said Hannay.

“I think it’s almost incumbent on us as coaches to make sure that rugby league remains something the players enjoy and it’s not just a job.

“What I’ve learned from my experiences as a head coach and as an assistant is that it’s easier to be that guy… to make sure the vibe and the energy are good because there is a lot more to do as a head coach.”

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Hannay describes the past 12 months as “wonderful”.

His success with Cronulla and Queensland not only saw his stocks increase, but he was part of two fantastic groups that continued to push his own coaching motivations.

Yet there are constant reminders of how important it is to not take any of these moments for granted.

Hannay flew to Queensland to attend Paul Green’s funeral last week. He sat next to Green in the Cowboys’ remarkable grand final in 2017 and has nothing but incredible memories of the much-loved figure in rugby league.

It also made Hannay reflect on the life of a rugby league manager and how fickle it can be.

“It’s a brutal industry,” says Hannay.

“Your good days are great and the ups are amazing. But the hard times can be really hard and there can be many.

“It’s a tough industry to be successful in and I’m very aware of how unforgiving it can be, I’ve certainly experienced it first hand.”

But that hasn’t weakened Hannay’s resolve for his own coaching aspirations.

With two experiences as an interim coach under his belt, he knows he has what it takes to take on this full-time responsibility. His players agree.

Yet he doesn’t want to hear any of this talk until he feels his job is done in Cronulla. And it starts tonight with a qualifying final clash against his former team.

“When you have that taste for success and the good side of coaching, it makes you want more.

“There are always opportunities that arise within the head coaching ranks and I know that I am capable and ready to be a head coach.

“But certainly right now, I’m really happy and happy with the role I’m playing here in Cronulla.”

Lachlan McKirdyContent producer

Lachlan McKirdy is a content producer for CODE Sports focusing on cricket, NRL and Olympic sports. Lachlan has a passion for storytelling and enjoys sharing the incredible stories of athletes performing on the national and international stage.

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