The Cronulla Sharks have hit back over claims they mistreated Brisbane-bound centre Jack Bird's ongoing shoulder injury at the backend of the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership season.
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett believes the Sharks switched off in their duty of care for the 22-year-old following their Week 1 finals exit after fresh scans on arrival to Brisbane revealed a full shoulder reconstruction was required.
The New South Wales representative was finally unveiled by the Broncos on Wednesday following months of silence after the Sharks blew the lid on the deal back in April – an unwritten rule between clubs that sparked controversy at the time.
Bird missed seven of the final eight rounds leading into the NRL finals, but returned in the Sharks' campaign exit against North Queensland and went on to play in the Prime Ministers XIII fixture in PNG a fortnight later.
Cronulla released a statement on Saturday morning and were outraged by Bennett's claims.
"The comments made with regards to the Sharks sweeping a player's injury under the carpet are misleading and false," the statement read.
"These statements have insulted Sharks medical staff, the club's radiology provider and one of Australia's leading shoulder surgeons in whom Jack consulted.
"Sharks medical staff attended the surgical consultations with Jack. The surgeon concluded that there was no indication that surgery was required based on Jack's clinical presentation and the radiology findings.
"The Sharks made a collective decision that involved Jack, the surgeon and the club's medical staff, that surgery was not required and the injury would be allowed to heal naturally whilst Jack underwent a rehabilitation program."
Bennett compared Bird's injury to that of future teammate Anthony Milford, who missed the Rugby League World Cup to undergo immediate surgery following the Broncos' preliminary final exit.
The Broncos are confident Bird will be fit for Round 1, but Bennett indicated the club have lost valuable time.
Cronulla refused to draw similarities.
"Suggestions that Jack Bird's injury is similar to that sustained by Anthony Milford are incorrect," the statement continued.
"Jack did not dislocate his shoulder. The statement that the Brisbane Broncos have lost time with Jack as a direct result of the medical processes carried out by the Sharks has no basis in fact.
"The Sharks view their duty of care to their players as their top priority. The players' health, wellbeing and welfare are taken very seriously and any disparaging remarks will be vigorously defended."
Cronulla and Brisbane first meet each other in Round 15 next season at Southern Cross Group Stadium.