Who 'duped' Cronulla Sharks players?

Lengthy ban: Shane Flanagan was banned for failing to protect his players, but not for any involvement in the supplements program. Photo: Sasha Woolley
Lengthy ban: Shane Flanagan was banned for failing to protect his players, but not for any involvement in the supplements program. Photo: Sasha Woolley

NRL chief executive Dave Smith and his ASADA counterpart, Ben McDevitt, say past and present Cronulla players were "duped" into taking performance-enhancing drugs while at the club in 2011. But if so, by whom?

While the players had always maintained they did not take prohibited substances, 12 members of the Sharks' 2011 squad on Friday accepted backdated one-year suspensions for "unknowingly and unwittingly" using the banned peptide CJC-1295 and growth hormone GHRP-6 during a four-week period in 2011.

However, Cronulla officials are yet to publicly acknowledge that those substances were part of a doping regime at the club in 2011 and no one at the Sharks, the NRL or ASADA has explained who was in charge of that program or how the substances were sourced and administered.

In other words, who "duped" the players and how did they do it?

Head coach Shane Flanagan and former high performance manager Trent Elkin have received lengthy bans from the NRL for failing to protect the welfare of players, but not for any involvement in the doping program.

Other members of Cronulla's coaching staff have so far escaped any action, including anti-doping officer Mark Noakes, who reportedly did not contact ASADA to check whether CJC-1295 and GHRP-6 were on the banned list until the Sharks began an internal investigation some two years later.

Controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank is the person most people point the finger at, but he was never officially employed by Cronulla, did not receive any payment for the 11 weeks he was at the club and there are no records that he ever invoiced the Sharks for any supplements.

In fact, it remains unclear who paid for the substances that were given to the players during that period in the form of injections, tablets and creams.

At the start of the ASADA investigation, the Sharks tried to distance themselves from Dank in much the same way they had previously done with sex shop owner Con Ange, who was a regular in the dressing rooms and whose son was even given the honour of being ball boy but was not a sponsor and had no formal association with the club.

On one occasion after Ange was eventually banned from the dressing rooms and tunnel area at Remondis Stadium, he was discovered at the bottom of a stairwell with Cronulla captain Paul Gallen by reporters returning to the media box after the post-match press conferences.

ASADA has been told of players "going off reservation" after the Sharks decided that Dank was no longer welcome in May 2011, but investigators either didn't have enough evidence or it never happened.

The Sharks, NRL and ASADA have all conducted their own investigations and none has so far obtained sufficient proof to charge anyone with wrongdoing, besides Dank, who faces a lifetime ban from Australian sport.

However, those close to the players who have been suspended say some – and particularly those no longer at the Sharks –  hold Flanagan responsible for the blemish against their names and question how he can continue coaching at the club.

Seven-times premiership winning coach Wayne Bennett was again critical of Flanagan after Newcastle's loss to Brisbane on Saturday night, while North Queensland coach Paul Green also took aim at the Sharks over Matt Wright's suspension.

"Matt Wright is shattered and unfortunately the more I find out from dealing with what Wrighty has been through, I really feel he has been let down by some people, without going into it too much," Green said after the Cowboys' win over South Sydney.

Asked who he was referring to, Green said: "I think it is pretty obvious. I think Matt has been let down by some people that he put his trust in and he is the one paying the price".

Wright and Gold Coast playmaker Albert Kelly had just turned 20 at the time and while there has been criticism from some Olympic athletes about the Sharks players receiving discounted bans for "no significant fault", they are not answerable to a coach who oversees contract negotiations and team selection.

The mother of another rookie Stewart Mills called for Flanagan to be banned for life, while the father of Knights prop Kade Snowden also blamed the coach for his son's suspension.

Mills, who now plays for the Helensburgh Tigers, was interviewed but not banned as the only players to receive show-cause notices from ASADA were those who played first grade for Cronulla between rounds two and five of the 2011 season.

Gallen, Snowden, Wright, Kelly, Luke Douglas, Wade Graham, Anthony Tupou, John Morris, Jeremy Smith, Nathan Gardner, Josh Cordoba and Broderick Wright have all accepted the bans, while Paul Aiton, Ben Pomeroy, Stuart Flanagan, Colin Best and John Williams are the others facing suspension.

Cordoba, Broderick Wright and Isaac Gordon have already launched legal action against the Sharks and other players are now considering following suit.

That may be the only way to finally determine who wears the blame.

This story Who 'duped' Cronulla Sharks players? first appeared on WA Today.