Rugby league writer Daniel Boss analyses the impact of the penalties imposed today by the NRL in relation to the investigation of the alleged supplements program at Cronulla in 2011.
Today was a mixed day for Australian sport. The obvious positive was the regaining of the Ashes by the Australian Cricket team, as they defeated England in a test series for the first time since 2006-07. Over the final two tests, they will be looking to match the efforts of that series where Australia won 5-0. The other big news in Australian sport was the handing down of penalties to the Cronulla Sharks, their coach Shane Flanagan and former employee Trent Elkin. For those who are unaware, the Cronulla club were fined $1 million with $400,000 of this suspended. Flanagan has been handed a one-year ban, of which three months are suspended, while Elkin (who currently works with Parramatta) has been indefinitely banned. The suspended punishments to Cronulla and Flanagan will be enforced if both parties do not meet requirements which have been set out by the NRL. I should also note that the Cronulla club, Flanagan and Elkin all have just under a month to appeal these sanctions. The impacts on the Cronulla team and Cronulla club that are analysed below assume that these penalties are final.
Impact on the team
The big impact to the Cronulla team is the loss of their head coach Shane Flanagan. In the three years that Flanagan has been in charge of the Sharks, they have seen great improvement as they have gone from wooden spoon contenders to finalists over the past two seasons. They have bought extensively well as the club has been able to attract players as they would like to play under Flanagan. It is the biggest reason why their star five-eighth Todd Carney resigned with the club earlier this season. This ability to get players to play hard for him is Flanagan’s greatest strength in my opinion and this is the biggest loss for the team.
Even though Flanagan’s suspension will leave a huge absence, I am a big fan of his replacement Peter Sharp. Sharp has been a long-time assistant coach, who has had success at all the clubs that he has served as an assistant coach. He has had two stints as coach of clubs, firstly as coach of Manly/Northern Eagles from 1999 to 2003. In this period, he provided stability at a club that was financially poor and suffered from a fractured board. After the 2003 NRL season, he was replaced by Des Hasler but he had already brought some young players to the club that would bring success over the next decade, namely Anthony Watmough, Jason King and the Stewart brothers. Sharp’s second stint was in the English Super League, where he lasted two and a half seasons at Hull (2006-08). In his first season, he took Hull to the Super League grand final and in his second season, they finished 4th. Sharp was then sacked after a poor start to the 2008 season. Sharp will be relishing another chance to show that he is a very capable rugby league head coach.
On the playing front, there is no impact at this stage. Of course, this could change if ASADA do issue infraction notices to players. However, as the alleged program took place in 2011, this will not apply to the majority of players currently in Cronulla’s NRL squad. All teams have a substantial amount of player turnover over a 3-year period but Cronulla have seen greater turnover as they were able to attract players from other clubs to help them climb the premiership ladder. Players such as Todd Carney, Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis, Andrew Fifita, Jeff Robson and Chris Heighington to name a few, will not be impacted by this scandal. As a result, the Sharks will still have a very competitive side in 2014, regardless of what happens between now and then.
Impact on the club
Cronulla’s financial position has been well publicised over the past 5 years. They are one of the most financially weak clubs in the NRL and have been somewhat struggling in recent times. However, hope came last year when a multi-million dollar development was approved by the local council. In the future, Cronulla’s financial position should be greatly improved but they are still in a bad position at the moment.
The $1 million fine certainly does not help matters. It does help that $400,000 of this fine is suspended and the club would be crazy if they did not follow the requirements of the NRL which would result in the payment of the suspended fine. The relationship between the league and the Sharks is somewhat rocky after the NRL-appointed CEO for Cronulla Bruno Cullen left the club following the reinstatement of suspended staff during the 2013 season. However, NRL CEO Dave Smith did acknowledge that the club had a new management and board in place and that Cronulla’s governance framework was stronger than it was in 2011. This makes me believe that the club is in a position to be able to fulfil the requirements set out by the NRL.
One thing that Cronulla has in its favour is their CEO Steve Noyce. He was previously CEO of the Wests Tigers from 2001 to 2008. The club he took over at that point was a rabble that was mired in scandal. Over his tenure, he improved the financial position of the club, oversaw its only premiership in 2005 and attracted star players such as Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall. Noyce is certainly capable of leading Cronulla through this crisis.
Stance of the NRL
This strong stance taken by the NRL continues their focus on player safety and protection. This is essential for a game to currently thrive in a society that is becoming more litigious. In the US, the NFL recently settled a lawsuit for $765 million with former players over the effects of concussions caused by playing in the league. The NRL, like other sporting leagues around the world, have seen this and have realised that they need to protect themselves by protecting the players as much as possible. The severity of impact of shoulder charges led to its banning prior to the start of the 2013 season and future changes may come into effect in the future if this trend continues.
In addition to controlling the rules of the game, the NRL needs to ensure that all of their clubs are also protecting their players. Dave Smith certainly made this clear in his statement today. Not only will the league and clubs potentially find themselves liable for not protecting the players but this could also impact future participation in the game as parents will be less willing to have their children play a game where the players are not protected. Yes, this may be a bit of an extreme statement but as there are now more sports than ever competing for the participation of children, then the NRL needs as little negative publicity as possible in order to attract families to the game.