The Cronulla Sharks: the club that doesn't know how to play by the rules
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The Cronulla Sharks: the club that doesn't know how to play by the rules

The Cronulla Sharks are the club that never learns. It’s certainly a club that struggles to play by the rules.

From the injection of prohibited substances that led to most of their players being suspended in 2014 to coach Shane Flanagan being sacked late last year for defying the rules of his suspension, the Sharks now face two years of hell after being caught out trying to cheat the salary cap.

Cronulla chief executive Barry Russell self-reported minor salary cap discrepancies dating back to 2013.

Cronulla chief executive Barry Russell self-reported minor salary cap discrepancies dating back to 2013.Credit:AAP

At the heart of the NRL’s decision on Friday to fine Cronulla $1.25 million and have $707,000 shaved off their salary cap for the next two seasons was the club’s attempt to pay players undeclared third-party agreements through a separate company.

It did this the year after it won the 2016 premiership. It did this just months after Parramatta were stripped of 12 competition points, fined $1 million and had a raft of officials sacked over the cheating of the salary cap.

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It is either arrogance or incompetence or both.

The Sharks have accepted the NRL’s penalties and, according to NRL chief operating officer Nick Weeks, "accepted and acknowledged" the establishment of the company to pay illegal third-party agreements.

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"The extent of the promises over the period we were looking at were over $750,000," Weeks said. "Most of those promises weren’t honoured. The club embarked on a program that begun in earnest in 2017 to set up a structure to procure third-party agreements to players. They did that through a separate company. It was set up with the endorsement of the club, funded by a director, and was used to arrange third-party agreements for their players."

The Herald can reveal that company was Connection 2 Sports, which is operated by the Sharks’ former sponsorship and commercial manager Luke Edmonds.

He was adamant when contacted on Friday he had not done anything wrong and was mystified that the Sharks had been heavily penalised — even if the club had accepted the NRL's penalties.

"At no stage did any director of the club give me direction or funding to set up my business," Edmonds said. "[They] certainly didn’t give me any direction to chase third-party deals. To this day, I’m not aware or privy to any player being owed third-party money. There has never been a transaction made from Connection 2 Sports to a player. Every introduction I’ve ever made has been approved and registered by the game.

"I went in to the NRL last week off my own bat. I was keen to go in there because I wanted to clear a few things up. Everyone knows there’s been plenty of chat around in relation to my business being involved.

"It’s funny: when I went to the NRL and explained how my business operates, they suggested I was 100 percent compliant. I know the rules inside out and back to front. I know exactly how it works."

Not everyone at Cronulla seems to know.

The salary cap is in place to create parity across the 16 clubs so the rich don’t get richer and poor don’t always get the wooden spoon.

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Under the rules of the game, third-party agreements must be at arm’s length from the club, otherwise they must be counted towards its salary cap.

Only the naive would believe that some clubs aren't better at hiding them than others but given this was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt by the Sharks to keep the nucleus of their grand-final winning side together, surely they have got off lightly?

The only reason they haven’t been slugged further is because chief executive Barry Russell came in last year and self-reported minor salary cap discrepancies dating back to 2013.

Whether the 1988 Rothman’s Medallist is a messiah or pariah depends on your viewpoint.

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If not for Russell’s honesty, the Sharks could’ve expected a larger sanction. If not for Russell’s honesty, the NRL might never have known about any of this and we're focussing instead on Dylan Napa's 'Big Papi' videos (for which the Canterbury recruit has been fined).

"We expect clubs when they identify misconduct to come forward and inform the NRL," Weeks said. "We want them to self-report. Barry Russell did that. If not for him, the sanction we imposed today would’ve been much larger."

Said NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg: "We might not have known at this point in time, but there’s nothing more certain that we would’ve found it at some point. And when we found it the consequences would’ve been much harsher."

Russell is being blamed by many in his own club for the dire state the embattled Sharks find themselves in. Others says he's tried to resign three times but the club won't let him go. Yes, it's all very Cronulla.

While the Sharks board, headed by chairman Dino Mezzatesta, is charged with keeping the club going, others have seemingly walked away with impunity.

Several directors are no longer involved with the game. It's understood one director resigned the day before he was due to meet integrity unit investigators about this matter.

Former chief executive Lyall Gorman, who is now at Manly, has also escaped reprimand with Weeks denying he had been given "immunity" in exchange for information about the seedy dealings of his former club. Gorman had no comment when contacted on Friday afternoon.

Greenberg also warned that the day was coming when players and their agents will be sanctioned for their role in salary cap dodging.

That day, like every other salary cap scandal day, wasn't yesterday.

Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.

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