With no chief, could Cronulla have been an accident waiting to happen?
1. Can the Sharks survive?
Even before the mass clean-out of coaching and training staff on Friday afternoon there were rumours that the ARL Commission was going to install a chief executive and take over the running of Cronulla. With no major sponsors, the Sharks were already struggling and the possibility of losing up to 14 players to drugs bans would cripple the club. Cronulla may be the only club in the NRL that owns its ground but that means it must also bear all the costs and fans are unlikely to support an uncompetitive team tainted by a drugs scandal. With no senior management, few off-field staff following the axing of coach Shane Flanagan and four others on Friday, and the possibility of few top-line players, this may be the Sharks' last season unless the ARLC intervenes. But even if they do, the club is unlikely to ever be the same and may be forced to move. Perhaps they could become the Perth Sharks.
2. Is it fair that any Cronulla player who unknowingly took performance-enhancing substances faces suspension?
NRL players, especially younger ones, are likely to place their faith in the coaching and off-field staff but under the World Anti-Doping Agency code athletes are responsible for anything they take that results in a doping violation. It is tough, particularly in a team sport, to expect a player to question his coach or trainer but the player is the one with the illegal substance in their system. That is why section 10:5.5 of the WADA code allows for athletes who have either inadvertently taken banned drugs, admit to doing so in the absence of other evidence or assist a wider doping investigation can be offered a reduction of up to 75 per cent of their ban.
3. What if they were advised at the time that the substance was legal?
According to the WADA code, it is up to the athlete to check every substance they are given before taking and not just blindly rely on the advice of others and the NRL provides training for them about that. The substances that Cronulla players are understood to have taken - CJC-1295 and Beta Thymosin 4 - may not have always been on the banned list but section two of WADA's prohibited list contains the catch-all phrase that any substance promoting growth hormone is illegal.
4. Is the legal counsel engaged by the Sharks acting for the players or the club?
As soon as they realised the severity of the problem, Cronulla officials engaged the services of former Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority prosecutor Richard Redman to represent their players. But their first concern was to prevent the team from being decimated and now that it appears that can't happen, it is to minimise any damage to the club. If the players plead guilty, there will be no drugs tribunal hearings and the full details of what happened at the Sharks won't become public.
5. Shouldn't Cronulla officials be fighting to clear their players' names rather than advising them to accept six-month bans?
That was the initial intention but once they learnt that ASADA had a whistleblower, who they believe to be former trainer Trent Elkin, the Sharks decided that it would be better for the players to negotiate six-month bans rather than the mandatory two-year suspension for doping violations. At least they will be back next year and only this season will be a write-off.
6. If the players are guilty, why would the Sharks be offering to pay them while suspended and extend their contracts?
Cronulla have got no jersey sponsors and no naming rights sponsor for their stadium, so the last thing they can afford is for a group of players whose careers and reputations have been damaged for unknowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs to sue for negligence. Should they do so there is a very real chance that the club, which has always struggled financially, would go broke.
7. Will the players be allowed to receive full pay while suspended?
Section 10:10:3 of the WADA code provides for financial support and sports-related funding to be withheld for the duration of any drugs ban but does cover arrangements between clubs and players. However, Fairfax Media has been told it would be ''unprecedented" if the Sharks were to pay players while suspended for drug use and the NRL would not let it happen as it would effectively be seen as thumbing their nose at ASADA.
8.Does the club face sanctions if its players are suspended for using performance-enhancing substances?
Ultimately, those in charge at Cronulla are responsible for what may be the biggest drugs scandal in Australian sport and they will be held accountable. Melbourne were fined $500,000 and forced to play a season for no competition points due to salary cap cheating but this is potentially far worse.
9. Have the Sharks been poorly managed?
Cronulla have had no chief executive for more than two years, share resources with a struggling leagues club and have the smallest off-field staff in the NRL. Often Sharks officials say they haven't been able to return phone calls because they were too busy so the belief is that they have been an accident waiting to happen for some time.
10. How can players the Sharks are advising to plead guilty to doping violations be allowed to continue playing?
At this stage no player has been charged by ASADA so there is no reason for them to stand down but when club representatives have been advising them to accept a six-month ban Cronulla officials obviously believe they are guilty. Therefore, the club should take the initiative and suspend the players immediately as to delay doing so just makes a mockery of the whole process.
11. What sort of team will they field if up to 14 players are stood down or suspended?
So much for all of Cronulla's great off-season recruitment as there won't be too many players left and the Sharks share a NSW Cup team with Melbourne so there is not much depth to call on. Put simply, they would struggle.