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The call came at 5pm, a dreaded deadline time of day for journalists. My news director told me to “get in a cab and get down to Cronulla. Betting has been suspended. ASADA investigators are tearing through the club”.
Half an hour later I arrived at the club but the only chaos was being caused by news crews scrambling for information to serve up to the 6pm faithful. No sign of ASADA investigators, no Cronulla officials and certainly no Sharks players. I stood in that car park for two days. The only representatives from the ‘black, white and blue’ I saw were the fans.
In the worst case scenario (of course, it’s all speculation at the moment), this could prove the biggest crisis ever to break in rugby league – yet here were the Shire supporters turning up in car loads to watch and wait, cruising through the car park, windows down to yell out chants of support and unwavering belief in their beloved Sharks. Far from being ashamed or outraged at the drug use accusations levelled at their star-studded playing roster, the Sharks fans galvanised as the groundswell of support built towards the season opener.
When coach Shane Flanagan was controversially stood down, the rally cry raced thick and fast across the Shire. By the Sunday afternoon of kick-off, Sharks Stadium heaved under the 17,000-strong crowd who turned up to support their besieged Sharkies. Skipper Paul Gallen used medical strapping on his arm to protest the sacking of the ‘Cronulla Five’ and fans left satiated after an emotional two-point win over the Titans.
Many thought the rapture would evaporate by round two but the following week, with uncertainty still lingering, they were gallant again against the Rabbitohs.
The supporters are the most passionate individuals in rugby league but sometimes emotions are at odds with the situation at hand. It’s interesting that the Shire tribe are showing heightened solidarity when their team (or rather some of them) are under the microscope for allegedly doping – an act that clearly betrays the game. Would you believe fewer fans attended Cronulla’s last home game of 2012 against the Cowboys, where the Sharks were fighting to host a final?
Is it blind devotion, or just a case of ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Either way, what we have witnessed over the past few weeks in the south of Sydney is that the power of the people is enormous. The fans are bellowing to reinstate Flanagan, something which may happen sooner rather than later. And rumour has it influential Sutherland businessmen and women are planning to challenge the current board of directors.
ASADA’s focus on the Sharks has been put to one side, with the anti-doping authority shifting attention from clubs to cast their net across 31 individual players. Yes, the potential fallout would be devastating – but for now the ever-optimistic fans won’t hear of it.
Should any individual be found guilty of doping - well, it’s clear they don’t belong in our game and should serve a severe sentence. But it’s also almost inevitable that regardless of the outcome there will be innocent, collateral victims, too. We’re seeing it right now with Todd Carney. The Sharks nursed Carney’s career back to good health, reminding the NRL the troubled but talented pivot was worth the wait.
But Carney’s contract talks have stalled since the ASADA shadow crept across Cronulla. In 2011 they threw the five-eighth a lifeline but today he is in limbo, without a coach and without a club for 2014. The fans would be devastated if Carney was forced to walk away from their backyard given the lack of certainty at Sharks Stadium.
A feverish off-season recruitment drive lured Beau Ryan, Michael Gordon, Chris Heighington and Luke Lewis to the Shire; they couldn’t have possibly known the drama that awaited them on the eve of this season. But they have stood shoulder to shoulder, declaring their belief in the club’s innocence and immediately endearing themselves to the supporter base.
If history has shown us anything, it’s the fact that the people are the most important component in rugby league. Let’s all hope that their passion and belief will not need to face the ultimate test.
* Yvonne Sampson is a sports reporter with Channel Nine.