Paul Gallen is ready to be branded a drug cheat, saying he will "let people make up their own mind" after accepting a deal with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority on Friday.
As more than a dozen current and former Cronulla players reluctantly accepted heavily backdated and reduced suspensions, the highest profile member of the group also decided to sit out the final rounds of the season and the upcoming Four Nations.
Gallen had said only 48 hours earlier that by agreeing to a compromise with ASADA players knew they would be labelled drug cheats.
On Friday night, he told Channel 9: "People can have their own opinion. Life goes on and the sun is going to come up tomorrow. There are plenty of people worse off than me. You've just got to get on with life. I'll let people make up their own mind."
The NSW captain said players had only made up their minds about taking the ASADA offer at the 11th hour after a tense and frantic lead-up to the deadline.
"There was a lot of different things going through my mind. The last 12 hours have been hard," Gallen said. "The ballpark, the goalposts changed three or four times. It's pretty tough but ... you've just got to get on with life." As the players digested their penalties, the blame game escalated.
Outgoing Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett loses two players, forwards Kade Snowden and Jeremy Smith, for the rest of the season as a result of the bans but with the Knights out of finals contention it is not their absence for the next three weeks that is of chief concern.
Instead, Bennett took aim at Cronulla's coaching and support staff of three seasons ago, principally then head coach Shane Flanagan. "Obviously there was a series of incidents that happened at Cronulla in 2011 that were not player driven – they were coach driven," Bennett said on Friday.
"They [the players] got extremely bad advice, and they are paying a price for that now which, in many ways, is unfair. At the same time, it's the code that we work under – WADA, ASADA – and the drugs, in their opinion, are certainly performance enhancing. They had their duty of care breached as far as I'm concerned."
The players' reluctant agreement to the ASADA deal will prohibit them from having any connection with their clubs until their backdated year-long suspensions expire on November 23. That means they are banned from training, the dressing room, the players' and coaches' boxes and even their clubs' presentation night.
ASADA's independent review body, the Anti-Doping Rule Violation Panel, was due to meet on Friday night with the addition of the players to the agency's register of findings a formality. The NRL was then expected to be in a position to issue infraction notices on Saturday.
Bennett expressed sympathy for the players who were at Cronulla when sports scientist Stephen Dank was introduced to the club, saying they were told the supplements they took were to aid recovery and were not informed they were performance enhancing.
"The people they trust more than anybody else in their lives, and in what they do, is their coaches and their staff," Bennett said. "The buck stops within the group that told them this was OK to do this."
Flanagan will resume control at Remondis Stadium season after completing an NRL-imposed suspension
and Cronulla chief executive Steve Noyce opted not to weigh into Bennett's spray at the sidelined coach. "I don't think it's a day for blame. It's a day for players making the biggest decision of their life," Noyce said.
"There will be various views as there has been throughout this — it's been that sort of issue — but I just feel for the guys and certainly the last five phone calls I make tonight will be to these young men to make sure they're OK."
NRL chief executive Dave Smith said he hoped Friday's events would help bring closure to the saga.