Up to 14 Cronulla players left a meeting at Sharkies Leagues Club on Tuesday night fearing their careers may be in tatters after being told that they should accept a six-month suspension – or risk further sanctions over the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
A lawyer, hired by Cronulla to negotiate with ASADA in the wake of the drugs body's investigations into peptide use, had come to the meeting with documents already prepared for the players to sign, admitting to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The players were told that if they signed the documents, they would face no further sanctions beyond the six-month ban and would remain employed by the club, but that if they did not sign, they would open themselves to the possibility of longer suspensions. But the players, who attended the meeting with their agents, refused.
It is understood the players were set a deadline to sign the papers. It is believed the same lawyer had previously told players at the club that they had little to worry about, before dramatically changing tack this week following further talks with ASADA.
The investigation into Cronulla has focused on the 2011 season, and the involvement of controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank. The players believe that a former employee has blown the whistle on the use of supplements at the club. That employee refused to comment on Wednesday night when contacted by Fairfax Media.
The ACC and ASADA had come under significant pressure since the release of an unclassified document to name names. But the events of the past few days have brought the focus clearly onto Cronulla, leaving Sharks officials devastated. It is understood that eight players at other NRL clubs have been implicated in the latest ASADA investigations.
Fairfax Media was told that the meeting on Tuesday night was the sixth attended by the Sharks players since the dramatic news conference in Canberra a month earlier to announce the findings of an ACC report into doping and match fixing.
However, it was the first to which player agents had also been invited and rumours quickly began swirling on Wednesday morning of a story that would knock Ben Barba and Sonny Bill Williams off the front and back pages of newspapers. No player is thought to have failed a drugs test. It is understood that if players do admit to taking a banned substance they would claim to have done so unknowingly.
Fairfax Media has been told that Sharks players were given beta thymosin and CJC 1295 during 2011. It has been suggested that the substances were not on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list at the time.Sharks coach Shane Flanagan and football manager Darren Mooney did not return calls. A club spokesman denied reports that the players had been interviewed by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority on Wednesday.
Instead the players trained as normal to prepare for Sunday night’s match against Gold Coast, but their futures are uncertain amid speculation that either ASADA or the club will stand them down on Friday.
A shopping centre appearance by players on Thursday night was scrapped and an announcement of a new sleeve sponsor has been delayed. The Sharks say they have already lost a deal of up to $2million for the naming rights of their stadium after they were one of six NRL clubs named in the ACC report.
All six clubs – Cronulla, Penrith, Manly, Canberra, Newcastle and North Queensland – have links with sports scientist Stephen Dank, who is at the centre of an investigation into an AFL club, Essendon.
Dank was sacked by Essendon at the end of last season and more than 20 of the club’s players have been interviewed.
The Sharks issued a statement on Wednesday night, announcing they were working with ASADA.
‘‘Sharks fans and all rugby league supporters can be assured the club has been very proactive in fully co-operating with ASADA and taking other measures that prioritise the integrity of our club and the welfare of our playing group,’’ it said. ‘‘While there are strict boundaries around what we can say while the ASADA investigation is ongoing, fans should be assured that as soon as there is an opportunity to provide further information we will do so.’’
NRL officials said they had not been contacted by the Sharks or ASADA over the fate of any Cronulla players.
There were high hopes Cronulla would break their title duck this year but the latest developments have cast a pall over the club.