Sharks bid to save skin but risk legal battle

The split between Cronulla's players and its board, which is already widening following the mass departure of five key staff, has been illustrated further by the club's decision to engage prominent barrister Alan Sullivan to examine the club's potential liability.

Having hired a former ASADA legal counsel, Richard Redman, to negotiate with the anti-drugs body over investigations into the use of performance-enhancing substances, the club has now turned to the former chairman of the ARL judiciary for advice.

It is understood the Sharks made the move as a result of suggestions that, should Cronulla players be suspended for two years by ASADA, they would be in a position to take legal action against the club given their belief that any use of performance-enhancing substances was done so inadvertently.

The Sharks board was in favour of the players admitting to doping and copping six-month bans, a move that would have prevented any legal action against the club. The players were told they would also be paid and would get one-year contract extensions if they agreed to that course of action.

But the players, and their agents, believed that would unnecessarily tarnish their reputations. They also believed such an admission was more in the interests of the club than the players.

The development came as the Rugby League Players' Association chief executive, David Garnsey, confirmed he had engaged an independent lawyer, Andrew Coleman SC, to provide legal advice to the players as a result of ASADA's ongoing investigations into use of supplements in the 2011 season. Some managers of the players implicated in the investigations maintained on Friday night they had yet to engage further independent legal advice, but could not rule out doing so as a result of the ASADA sting.

The players have felt a significant shift in support from the club's board in recent days, which was shown starkly by the Tuesday night meeting at which they were offered the option of being stood down for six months to admit guilt. Many believe the club has effectively been willing to sacrifice this season - and the reputations of its players - to ensure its survival. Now, the fact that Sullivan, the prominent SC, will take a broad look at ''all aspects'' of the potential for problems will only add to the tension.

Garnsey maintained on Friday that anti-doping authorities ''must take into account the reality of the status of footballers as employees when determining culpability for doping offences''.

''Rugby league players ultimately place their trust in those who are in positions of knowledge and authority at their clubs and, as employees, follow the directions of their employers,'' Garnsey said. ''There was a recognition in the Australian Crime Commission's report that illegal substances had been administered to players by staff at clubs without those players understanding the nature of the substances.

''Where that has occurred, it is clear that those athletes have been exploited and are not drug cheats, yet they are subject to the same sanctions as those who deliberately set out to take prohibited substances to enhance their performance. In short, for reasonably obeying their employers, athletes' careers can be destroyed and reputations irreparably damaged.

''This cannot have been the object of the WADA code.

''The RLPA believes that the integrity of rugby league must never be compromised. However, to ensure that honest athletes are not unfairly punished … the RLPA calls on ASADA and the NRL to apportion the blame for any doping offences … where it should properly lie."

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