James Shepherd has reflected on his incredible debut coaching achievement with modesty, crediting Cronulla players for their win over the Sydney Roosters.
Cronulla’s man-of-the-moment James Shepherd created history in his NRL coaching debut on Saturday night, guiding the embattled Sharks to a win for the ages against the Sydney Roosters.
Twenty one years ago, Shepherd, as unheralded a player as he is a coach, also tasted success in his first start as a player.
Only it was for the Roosters against the Sharks.
Poetic irony aside – there’s a lot you can tell about this former high school teacher’s character, from the way he reflects on both achievements as player and coach.
Shepherd goes about his business with an unwavering modesty.
“To be honest I was basically a lower grade player that got a few opportunities,” Shepherd says of his playing career.
And of the role he played in guiding the Sharks through a tumultuous week to the equal biggest comeback win in NRL history, Shepherd says simply:
“It’s not about me.”
As a teacher and A-grade football coach at Marist College Kogarah until 2009, Shepherd mentored some future NRL stars like Keith Galloway, Daryl Millard and George Ndaira.
But when you’re in charge of a high school team, there’s no room for ego.
And Shepherd has taken that attitude to his various roles at Balmain and Wests Tigers, the Melbourne Storm, the Northern Territory academy and, since 2011, the Cronulla Sharks.
In a week where Todd Carney had been sacked and interim coach Peter Sharp had resigned – on top of all the issues the Sharks are facing – the team required a settling influence.
Shepherd gave voice to senior players Wade Graham, Jeff Robson and Anthony Tupou and kept the game plan simple.
“Once the distractions were out of the way, the theme was just get your head on football,” said Shepherd.
Comforted by the professionalism shown by the players in training, Shepherd says he was relatively relaxed on game day, despite it being his first match in charge.
As Sharp’s assistant this year, Shepherd’s job at halftime had been to speak individually with players – but never had he delivered an address to a team as a first grade coach.
On Saturday, with his team down 24-6 to the defending premiers – Shepherd’s message was to slow the ruck speed down, work on field position and don’t forget about the previous week’s comeback miracle from 22-0 down to beat Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium.
When the final hooter sounded on a miraculous 30-28 win, Shepherd sat alongside football manager, and long-time friend Darren Mooney in the coach’s box – speechless.
“I didn’t react too much, I was just in disbelief about what was happening,” he said.
“I was a bit dumbfounded to be honest. I couldn’t believe what I was watching the last 35 minutes of the game. It was just hard to put in to words.
“I was just really happy for the players and for the team. Just really pleased they hung in and played for each other.”
Whether it’s Shepherd in charge or a third interim coach in three weeks, the Sharks need to harness that spirit from next round and beyond until Shane Flanagan returns.