Cronulla Sharks, admit doping and pain ends
After 18 months of anguish and uncertainty, the worst could finally be over for Cronulla officials, players and supporters - but only if members of the Sharks' 2011 squad are prepared to admit they took banned substances and accept heavily discounted suspensions ranging from one month to six months.
For the players, it would mean an end to the constant speculation and scrutiny that they have had to endure since the press conference at Parliament House on February 7, 2013, that was infamously dubbed the "darkest day in Australian sport".
For officials and supporters, it would restore stability to the club after two seasons overshadowed by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority's investigation into the supplements programme at Cronulla during an 11-week period at the start of the 2011 season.
Having recently estimated that the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigation had cost the club A$4 million (NZ$4.4m), the Sharks have paid a high price for what happened four seasons ago.
Facing the wooden spoon after winning just five matches, Cronulla have lost coach Shane Flanagan to suspension, been forced to pay a fine of A$600,000 (NZ$660,000) to the NRL and played most of this season without a major sponsor as allegations that members of the 2011 squad took banned substances cast a pall over the club.
However, Sharks officials have insisted the club has not had to borrow money from the NRL and would welcome back Flanagan for next season, while the retirement of hooker John Morris meant there were only six players left at the Sharks who played NRL for the club in 2011.
Of those, rookie centre Ricky Luetele and forward Sam Tagataese were cleared by Asada - along with Warriors five-eighth Chad Townsend - after being advised they were not required for interviews last year.
That left captain Paul Gallen, fellow back-rowers Wade Graham and Anthony Tupou and winger Nathan Gardner as the only Cronulla players who might be facing sanctions when their season ended in three weeks' time.
With the bans expected to be offered to 17 past and present Sharks players believed to be between one month and six months in length, all would be back playing after the first month of next season - if not earlier.
Should Gallen be suspended, he may also miss the upcoming Four Nations tournament for Australia, while none of the players would be allowed to train with their clubs or have any official role until the bans have expired.
Former Sharks players at other clubs were expected to be offered similar deals, including Newcastle forwards Jeremy Smith and Kade Snowden, Gold Coast's Albert Kelly and Luke Douglas, and North Queensland three-quarter Matthew Wright.
There were also a number of players who have moved to Super League to continue their careers, including Catalans centre Ben Pomeroy, Leeds hooker Paul Aiton and prop Josh Cordoba, who recently signed with London Broncos.
The Sharks used 31 players during the 2011 season, but Stuff understood that Asada's focus was on 17 who played between rounds two and five.
It was understood new Asada chief executive Ben McDevitt was keen for the saga to be resolved before the end of the season and details of the bans were expected to be outlined to the players at a meeting this week, which would enable those who accepted six-month bans to miss just one month of matches in 2015.
Some were expected to be offered lesser sanctions, with the Wada code having a provision for admonishment or a one-month ban for athletes found to have taken taken unapproved prescribed, rather than prohibited, substances.
The players have maintained their innocence from the outset and therein lay their dilemma, as by accepting the bans they were admitting to using an illegal substance - even if they did so unknowingly.
A similar deal was rejected at a meeting of Cronulla players just days before the start of the 2013 season, which included Nathan Stapleton, Stewart Mills and Warriors back rower Jayson Bukuya, with Gallen later saying they had never seriously considered accepting six-month bans for being "truthful and honest".
"That was told to us from day one but we don't know where being truthful and honest comes from because we don't know what we have done wrong," Gallen said.
"That's what we were told and it was reported back then that we were to keep our contracts and take six months but we don't know what we have done wrong so we will just deal with it as it comes."
Gallen maintained that stance in an interview on the eve of Origin II, in which he also said the stress of the Asada investigation was affecting the mental health of some players and had prevented him and his wife having another child.
"From day one, from the time Cronulla got brought into it which was a week or so after that press conference, I don't know anything," Gallen said.
"Nothing has changed for me. I have been told to turn up to a meeting. I turned up at that meeting. Other than that, I don't know anything."
However, the resolve of Gallen and other players to continue fighting the allegations is set to be tested again this week and after the toll of the last 18 months it may be easier to accept a deal so they and the Sharks can finally move on.
SHARKS OF 2011: Where are they now?
Paul Aiton (Leeds Rhinos)
Colin Best (retired)
Jason Bukuya (NZ Warriors)
Dean Colliss (Wakefield Wildcats)
Josh Cordoba (London Broncos)
Luke Douglas (Gold Coast Titans)
Stuart Flanagan (Appin Dogs)
Tyson Frizell (St George Illawarra Dragons)
Paul Gallen (Cronulla Sharks)
Nathan Gardner (Cronulla Sharks)
Isaac Gordon (retired)
Wade Graham (Cronulla Sharks)
Albert Kelly (Gold Coast Titans)
Ricky Leutele (Cronulla Sharks)
Jon Mannah (deceased)
Stewart Mills (Helensburgh Tigers)
John Morris (retired)
Ben Pomeroy (Catalans)
Scott Porter (retired)
Jeremy Smith (Newcastle Knights)
Tim Smith (Wakefield Wildcats)
Kade Snowden (Newcastle Knights)
Nathan Stapleton (Sydney Roosters)
Sam Tagatese (Cronulla Sharks)
Taulima Tautai (Wakefield Wildcats)
Chad Townsend (NZ Warriors)
Anthony Tupou (Cronulla Sharks)
Siosaia Vave (London Broncos)
John Williams (retired)
Broderick Wright (retired)
Matthew Wright (North Queensland Cowboys)
Sydney Morning Herald