Rugby league was thrown into chaos on the eve of the season after widespread speculation Cronulla were set to become the first major victim of the Australian Crime Commission's investigation into drugs in sport with several players believed to be facing a minimum six-month ban.
Bookmakers suspended betting on the Sharks' round-one clash with Gold Coast on Sunday amid rumours several players were set to be stood down. There was speculation that the club was negotiating with ASADA officials to cut a deal which would result in bans of just six months.
ASADA officials interviewed staff from the club during the week and are expected to continue their inquiries in coming days. It is believed Sharks players, some accompanied by their agents, were summoned to a meeting on Tuesday night to discuss the situation. Coach Shane Flanagan cancelled media engagements and a planned store appearance as the club locked down. Wednesday's training session was held behind locked doors.
There were reports that an emergency Sharks board meeting was called on Wednesday night to decide the club's fate. However, a club representative denied this was the case. Complicating matters is the fact that Cronulla operate without a chief executive, and its chairman, Damian Irvine, is overseas.
Cronulla is one of six NRL clubs named in the ACC's report into the integrity of Australian sport and it is understood that the focus revolves around the time spent by sports scientist Stephen Dank in 2011. His stint at Cronulla was only a short one after he fell out with team doctor Dave Givney. Sources have told Fairfax Media that some Sharks players are concerned they are being investigated for their dealings with Dank after he left the club. Dank has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
An ASADA representative refused to comment on the latest developments and wouldn't confirm the meetings with the Shire club. The agency released the following statement in response to
Fairfax inquiries: ''ASADA is unable to talk publicly about the specifics of its investigation, and that includes speculating about individuals, until such time as its legislation permits. This ensures the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of any individual under investigation is protected."
Several bookmakers have suspended betting on the clash with the Titans, although TAB Sportsbet spokesman Glenn Munsie stressed the measure was precautionary only after the rumour mill went into overdrive.
''All we're hearing is that there are investigations and they're interviewing people at Cronulla,'' Munsie said.
''We're not saying anything is wrong there, but we need some more information about what's going on.
''We need to protect people who don't know what's going on. It's suspended until we find out some further information.''
The NRL and the Sharks refused to comment on the latest developments.
The club, still without a stadium sponsor and the only one without a major backer, had just secured a sleeve sponsor. However, plans for an announcement are likely to now be on hold.
The timing couldn't be any worse for the club or the game.
The Sharks were expected to be a major contender for the 2013 title.
The club, which was knocked out of the play-offs by Canberra last year, has added Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon, Chris Heighington, Beau Ryan and Jonathan Wright to an already impressive roster.