Bitter-sweet: Cronulla fans would have mixed emotions if the Sharks broke their 46-year premiership drought. Photo: Jane DysonFew will admit it, but even the most fanatical Cronulla supporters must be hoping this isn’t the season former prime minister Harold Holt finally emerges from the sea and knocks on their front door.
What would be a fairytale victory could quickly become a nightmare for the club and the game to rival that of North Sydney’s doomed move to Gosford in 2000 when the Bears went broke waiting for their new stadium to be built.
With the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority expected to hand down the findings of an eight-month investigation within days or weeks of the grand final, the last thing the NRL would want is to charge a group of players still celebrating their premiership triumph.
The Sharks aren’t alone in this situation, with current and former Manly players and coaching staff also being summonsed to interviews with ASADA, but Cronulla is the only NRL club accused of systematic doping.
Under WADA rules, any team can be banned if two or more players are found guilty of doping and ASADA has interviewed 10 members of the Sharks 2011 squad still at the club, along with former players now either playing elsewhere or no longer in the NRL.
Up to six Manly players and three ex-Sea Eagles have also been called to interviews with ASADA.
Former Cronulla directors feared the Sharks would be banned from the finals and wanted players to accept six-month bans at the start of the season rather than risk longer term damage to the club if the saga dragged on.
Yet no one now wants to consider what the final fall-out may be, with the Sharks officials preferring to focus on having secured a new sponsor and the NRL disputing comparisons between the Cronulla and Essendon cases.
While the AFL has headed off the possibility of Essendon winning the premiership by convincing the Bombers to accept a deal in which they are stood down from the play-offs, the NRL is gambling on the Sharks again failing to do so.
History would suggest the Sharks are unlikely victors as the club has not won a grand final since entering the competition in 1967, prompting coaching guru Jack Gibson to once famously declare that “waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt” – the Australian prime minister who did not return from an early-morning swim in the same year the club was founded.
But the way the Sharks have performed under coach Shane Flanagan suggests the allegations have galvanised them.
Unlike the NRL, the AFL has conducted a joint investigation with ASADA and is therefore in possession of much more information about what allegedly occurred at Essendon.
As a result, the NRL is prepared to wait for the ASADA investigation to run its course and then determine the appropriate action.
By doing so it will be armed with the full facts, whereas the AFL stance ignores the possibility of the findings against Essendon being more serious than what was outlined in ASADA’s interim report and the penalties imposed therefore prove insufficient.
After all, ASADA has not yet ruled out charging numerous Bombers players with doping offences.
ASADA is also yet to interview Stephen Dank, the former Manly sports scientist at the centre of the allegations against both Cronulla and Essendon.
But unless the Sharks are cleared of any serious wrongdoing in 2011, the fall-out will be huge and having to strip a club of a premiership they had just won is merely the worst-case scenario for the NRL.
What if Cronulla don’t win but they make the grand final – denying another team such as South Sydney or Sydney Roosters the chance at premiership glory.
Or what of the teams the Sharks beat in the play-offs, and the club whose place they took after such a closely fought battle for places in the top eight that still has up to 13 teams in contention.
At Cronulla, there would also be frustration and angst for the players – particularly those who weren’t there in 2011 – and others at the club whose efforts this year were always destined to be in vain.
For long-suffering Sharks supporters, the heartache of finally celebrating a grand final win only to have it taken away from them may be worse than never winning one at all.
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