Anthony Tupou of the Cronulla Sharks. Photo: Getty Images
Cronulla could field nearly half a squad of part-time footballers should the likes of Paul Gallen and Anthony Tupou take up ASADA's offer of a one-month ban.
And the Sharks won't get any salary cap relief or financial assistance from the NRL to call for more troops.
Injuries, retirements and off-field indiscretions have torn Cronulla apart this year, forcing interim coach James Shepherd to call on non full-time players.
That scenario could worsen if Cronulla are forced to play without Gallen, Tupou and Nathan Gardner in their battle to avoid the wooden spoon against Canberra on Sunday. The trio skipped a planned training session with the rest of the squad on Thursday afternoon as they mulled over their futures.
With their big guns missing, part-time players like Scott Sorensen, Michael Morris and Josh Portlock could be plucked from NSW Cup obscurity and pressed into NRL service. Sorensen's uncles Dane and Kurt played more than 300 combined games for the Sharks during the 1980s. Shepherd could opt to use the final three games to blood an uncapped under-20s player but he might want to spare them from facing first-grade sides if they are not ready for the NRL.
A spokesman for the NRL declined to speculate on whether the Sharks would be offered a second-tier salary exemption if they lost players due to the ASADA inquiry.
"That is not something we have considered at this stage," the spokesman said.
While Cronulla are not close to maxing out their second-tier salary cap, Fairfax Media understands it would be highly unlikely they would receive any relief from the NRL if they asked. It is understood the NRL would not want to be seen assisting a club whose players had breached the doping rules.
The club has been forced to call upon the likes of Tim Robinson, Pat Politoni and Junior Roqica, who have played first grade this year despite starting the season on part-time contracts. All three will feature for the Sharks against the Raiders, and 21-year-old back-rower Sione Masima could make his NRL debut. Masima – a Gymea Gorillas product – has been named 18th man and is on standby as interchange forward Tupou Sopoaga is in doubt.
Half Daniel Holdsworth is the only NRL-contracted player available from the club's NSW Cup roster. Because the Sharks share their feeder team with Melbourne, their depth doesn't run as deep as some of their rivals. Should the quartet of players be banned, the Sharks would have 17 NRL players unavailable on Sunday.
Gallen and Tupou would join the likes of John Morris and Beau Ryan, who have retired due to injuries, and Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham and Bryce Gibbs, who are all sidelined through injury.
Todd Carney was sacked and Nathan Stapleton was released mid-season to join the Roosters.
Cronulla's playing woes have been replicated in the coaching ranks. Head coach Shane Flanagan was suspended in December and interim coach Peter Sharp stepped down from his post in July.
2014 NRL-contracted players unavailable should ASADA bite Cronulla
1 Nathan Gardner, 2 Eric Grothe jnr, 3 Beau Ryan, 4 Nathan Stapleton (Roosters), 5 Jacob Gagan, 6 Wade Graham, 7 Todd Carney, 8 Andrew Fifita, 9 John Morris, 10 Bryce Gibbs, 11 Luke Lewis, 12 Anthony Tupou, 13 Paul Gallen. Interchange: 14 David Fifita, 15 Sam Tagataese, 16 Siosaia Vave, 17 Tinirau Arona
Coach: Shane Flanagan/Peter Sharp