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Out-of-control club falls further into mire

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As difficult as it is to imagine, there are sporting organisations better prepared to handle the fallout from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority drugs investigation than the Sharks. The Alice Springs Lifesaving Association, the Randwick Tiddlywinks Club. Maybe even Cricket Australia.

The Bulldogs' adroit handling of Ben Barba's pre-season suspension had seemed a symbolic moment in a new era of professionally administered NRL clubs. The Sharks' descent into chaos, confusion and civil war is a reminder there are still some outfits that lack the organisational skills to run a lemonade stand. Lance Corporal Jones from Dad's Army seems like an expert in crisis management compared with the Cronulla board's best efforts.

The humiliation of chairman Damian Irvine was compounded by his appearance before the media on Wednesday. The manner in which Irvine was verbally manhandled by reporters after announcing his retirement was symptomatic of the lack of authority with which the Sharks have reacted to a grave situation.

Irvine admitted he allowed himself to be pressured by a journalist into revealing his belief players had been administered a substance intended for horses. A strong leader would not have felt this need for self-justification. Certainly not in a tense, late-night phone call with a reporter.

Little wonder the Sharks - players, coaches, fans, paid administrators - sniffed blood in the water. Why the club's dramatic decision to stand down coach Shane Flanagan and members of his support staff was easily portrayed as an act of betrayal and self-preservation. Not, as you can only assume the board intended, an attempt to distance the club from potentially ruinous scandal.

Cronulla's bungling, self-incriminating and chaotic response was made worse by the stark comparison with how Essendon handled their crisis - one linked to the Sharks by the mutual involvement of sports scientist Stephen Dank. The Bombers, with the protective arm of the AFL around their shoulders, circled the wagons. The Sharks ate their own, a feeding frenzy yet to be justified. Other than by Irvine's panicked claim that his players were getting supplements more suitable for Black Caviar than a second-rower.


The outcome? The Cronulla board has martyred Flanagan, his staff and the players, muddied the waters for the ASADA investigators and left a team that is playing to spite its leaders, not serve them. The NRL's troubleshooter Bruno Cullen must wonder if he has been parachuted into the Shire or Mogadishu.

But as damaging as the internal division caused by the Cronulla board is the harm their pre-emptive strike might have caused to the most crucial issue - investigating and, if necessary, punishing those who might have flaunted the rules. Flanagan and his players have the fervent support of their fans because of the manner in which they have been treated. But what if it turns out that there were serious breaches that require tough action?

With the fans' emotions running high, logic has disappeared. An environment has been created whereby, to the ardent Sharks supporters, the coach and players are innocent victims and the board - not to mention ASADA, with whom the club flirted - are the enemy. Thus, regardless of what evidence is produced - and even allowing for Irvine's resignation - it will be all but impossible to convince some that the Sharks are anything but the subjects of a witch-hunt run by the federal government or ASADA.

It is an unhealthy and unstable environment in which to investigate and prosecute a case. No matter how well justified.

Essendon's slick handling of a similar problem raises its own concerns. Particularly the reflexive self-protection and adamant denials of wrongdoing, even by officials who admit they are unaware of the substances administered to players. This has created - or perhaps manufactured - the impression the Bombers are the naive victims. Regardless of their responsibilities to the drug code.

This is something the AFL, particularly, has struggled to accept. On one hand, it lobbies with spectacular success for federal and state government funds to build stadiums and run community programs that is hugely beneficial to the game's growth. At the same time, it seems staggered it is expected to impose - to the letter - a drug policy which is a condition of receiving such generous taxpayer funding. The AFL has mastered spin. The Sharks have spun out of control.

Twitter - @rdhinds