Some members of Cronulla's 2011 squad were in tears on Thursday night as they decided to accept backdated suspensions for unknowingly taking prohibited substances.
But the overwhelming emotion among the 17 players was one of anger towards the club and the people who had put them in such a position, with some considering suing the Sharks and questions raised about whether those still at Cronulla will be able to work with suspended coach Shane Flanagan next season.
Almost 18 months after they had rejected a similar proposal at a meeting on the eve of the 2013 season, the current and former Sharks players felt they had little choice but to plead guilty while still believing they had done nothing wrong.
The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency had made them an offer too good to refuse and one that would finally put an end to the speculation and scrutinity they had been forced to endure for the past two seasons.
Lawyers representing the players advised them that ASADA's case was weak if they wanted to challenge the show cause notices.
But in rejecting the deal, which will see most of them banned for just three games, the players were told they must be prepared for a two-year legal fight which would see their names dragged through the mud and could cost them up to $300,000 in legal fees in addition to lost income if they were unsuccesful and received a ban from the NRL anti-doping tribunal.
The clincher was a one-paragraph statement declaring the World Anti-Doping Authority was ''comfortable'' with the backdated suspensions - although Fairfax Media has been told WADA still hasn't ruled out appealing the leniency of the bans.
Channel Nine reported that players and their legal represntatives did not receive details of the official ASADA deal until 10.36pm on Thursday.
The email from WADA, saying it was ''comfortable'' with the ASADA-offered deal, did not arrive until 8.20am on Friday.
North Queensland winger Matthew Wright, who was just 20 at the time, was the most upset as he will miss the coming finals series and the end-of-season Four Nations tournament for Samoa. Those who knew Wright during his stint with Cronulla describe him as ''naive'' and ''quiet'', and say the Penrith junior would have done whatever Flanagan and his coaching staff told him without question, including being injected with substances that ASADA say included the banned peptide CJC-1295 and the growth hormone GHRP-6.
Uncontracted beyond this season, Wright has now paid a high price for trusting the coach who introduced controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank to the playing group in the middle of Remondis Stadium during a training session in the 2011 pre-season.
Of the 10 current NRL players, Cronulla's NSW captain Paul Gallen and Gold Coast prop Luke Douglas were the most reluctant to accept the bans, with Gallen having been unwavering in maintaining his innocence for the past 18 months and Douglas not wanting his record of 215 consecutive games since debuting for the Sharks in 2006 to be ended by a doping ban.
The players, some of whom were accompanied by parents, partners and/or managers, met with their legal representatives on Thursday to discuss the options ahead of Friday's 9.30am deadlined to accept the offer tabled by ASADA on Wednesday and were advised to make an individual decision.
But all except Super League-based pair Paul Aiton and Ben Pomeroy and retired centre Colin Best eventually took the deal, although it is understood neither of those three or former winger John Williams and hooker Stuart Flanagan, who now plays for the Appin Dogs in Group Six, are yet to receive their show cause notices from ASADA.
Besides Gallen, Sharks teammates Wade Graham, Anthony Tupou, Nathan Gardner and the recently retired John Morris all accepted the offer, along with Douglas and fellow Titan Albert Kelly, Wright, Newcastle forwards Jeremy Smith and Kade Snowden, London Broncos-bound Josh Cordoba and former prop Broderick Wright.All will be stood down from playing until November 21, while Morris, who took the ban to ensure the NRL will register him as a trainer, is unable to run the water for the Sharks or be involved with the club in any capacity until the ban expires.
''The players were in constant contact with each other and they just felt that they didn't have a choice in the end,'' a source close to the players said. ''But they still have the right to sue Cronulla and that has to be a serious option for a lot of the guys now.''
Even Sharks insiders acknowledge the club has been ''compromised'' and the players may be able to sue them for damage to their reputations, loss of earnings, lack of welfare and the stress caused by the ASADA investigation.
When the allegations first arose after the now infamous February 7 press conference in Canberra, Cronulla officials attended a meeting with NRL chief executive Dave Smith at which a deal was proposed that would enable the players to accept six-month suspensions for providing substantial assistance.
Fairfax Media has even been told ASADA was prepared to consider backdating the suspensions as they have done now.
The players were also told Cronulla would honour their contracts and offer a one-year extension as a way of safeguarding the club from legal action as it was considered the Sharks were ''vicariously liable'' for the doping violations.
Flanagan was stood down and later reinstated with a clause inserted in his contract enabling the Sharks to sack him if new evidence emerged from the ASADA investigation. He is eligible to return to the job from September 17 after serving a minimum nine-month NRL imposed suspension and has recently signed a new three-year contract that is not believed to include such a clause.
However, there are doubts about whether his relationship with the players can ever be the same.
''How can he walk back in at the end of the season and coach the team,'' a player's manager said. ''You have to wonder whether some of the players would even want to be in the same room as him.''
- Sydney Morning Herald
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