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Were I a Melbourne Storm supporter, I’d be fuming at the apparent ‘kid gloves’ approach being taken towards the Cronulla Sharks.
Now, until a series of events play out, there’s no way of knowing what has happened and what the consequences will be for events that went down in the Shire over the past few years.
Maybe Shane Flanagan sent a few innocuous emails to mates at the club, enquiring after the health of their children, curious as to when pics from a recent holiday would be up on Insta (heaps likely).
Maybe these salary-cap rorting allegations will be found to be a case of accidental Excel. “No, we didn’t pay that bloke $311,015 – we paid him his regular salary on the 31st of October, 2015. Someone forgot to change the cell from ‘General’ to ‘Date’. Maureen, was this you again? Classic Maureen!”
And maybe all that really happened when Stephen Dank came to town was that he gave everyone some pep pills that were totally above board and there is – as we seem to keep being asked to believe – nothing to see here either.
Except we know there were things to see with that final aspect. Players were suspended – it was a weak-ass, back-dated suspension, but they still spent time on the sidelines – and Flanagan copped a 12-month ban for failing to properly oversee the governance of his side.
However, the coach apparently didn’t respect his ban and was allegedly in contact with the club during the year he was supposed to be persona non grata at Shark Park.
And Flanagan’s involvement with the club during his period in timeout was discovered because the NRL is in the process of delving into the Sharks’ salary cap issues – self-reported, lovely, but spanning both the 2015 and 2017 seasons.
As I said at the top, there’s no way of knowing how this all shakes out (well, except the part where the Sharks were on peptides back in the day, that bit we know for sure), but what if they’re all true?
What if Shane Flanagan completely disregarded his ban and had a hand in recruitment and retention at the club ahead of 2015?
And what if during 2015 and 2017, the club was secretly paying people under the table?
Put that on top of the fact a bunch of their players spent the 2011 season fuelled by banned substances, and you start to get a pretty rotten picture.
So the question I’m asking is: why do all reports on the issue keep saying the 2016 title is in no danger of being stripped?
A few months back, when news broke about the Sharks’ salary cap issues, I wrote about how the cap can’t be treated as a single-season prospect. You breach it in 2015, that means it has an effect on how things play out in 2016.
The same thing is true with recruitment and retention. It’s also the case for the use of performance-enhancing substances – in fact there’s a strong argument that those found guilty of using banned substances should be barred from professional sport for life, because that’s how long the benefits can last.
So let’s paint out a picture of the worst-case scenario.
A significant chunk of the team spend the 2011 season being administered banned substances.
As a result, the coach is banned from any involvement with the organisation for the 2014 season.
But he ignores that directive and oversees aspects of how the team will look for 2015 and beyond.
During that 2015 season, the club knowingly breaches the salary cap by way of false invoicing.
In 2016, the Sharks break one of the longest droughts in Australian sport by claiming their first premiership.
Then, in 2017, the club once again flouts the salary cap.
Now, I’m not saying the above is definitely what happened, but it’s certainly possible.
And if that is the way it all went down, do we honestly say that Cronulla’s 2016 grand final victory is fair and just?
I’ll leave Wade Graham and Paul Gallen’s suspensions for banned substances out of the argument because they did their time and they were fair participants in the 2016 decider.
But the coach may have ignored his sanctions to build the team that won that night.
And if the 2015 and ’17 salary caps are found to have been breached, well, are we honestly ready to say that the two years either side of their premiership year had zero bearing on the way Cronulla managed their 2016 cap?
I’m not saying the Sharks should have their premiership stripped. But if the worst-case scenario is the reality of the situation, why the hell do we keep hearing that their grand final win isn’t tainted? A club that was allegedly up to its neck in nefarious dealings from 2011 to 2017 just happened to be completely unimpeachable for one of those years? As if that year – the one that matters most – exists in a vacuum, impervious to all that happened around it?
The case against the Melbourne Storm was rock solid. They cheated and got the punishment they deserved as a result.
But if every wrongdoing that’s being levelled against Cronulla turns out to be true, surely questions need to be asked as to whether they deserve to keep their 2016 trophy.