The Cronulla players suspected of drug violations are likely to be still playing all season, while guilty members of the Sharks football department could be banned for life.
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NRL rules allow a player who has not tested positive to a drug test to continue playing until his case is heard, but any premiership points earned from wins while he is a member of the team are eventually stripped, should he eventually be found guilty.

The AFL has the same rule, meaning that the drugs saga affecting both codes has the potential to see a team on the eve of the grand final lose its points and be forced to forfeit.

Given the massive task faced by ASADA of six investigators interviewing over 150 players at a minimum of six NRL and AFL clubs, it will take more than a year to complete the probe into players, support staff and club officials and lay charges ahead of penalties given.

Fourteen Sharks players have indicated they will contest the charge of using drugs, but if eventually found guilty are likely to be suspended for two years.

However, ”support staff” under ASADA rules, meaning coaches, trainers, masseurs and club doctors, face bans of eight years to life, even if the use of the drug was deemed inadvertent. Given that support staff are mature people in a position of responsibility, they are treated more harshly under the World Anti-Doping Agency code.

The action by the Cronulla board in sacking or standing down five members of the Sharks’ football department reflects the seriousness with which it interprets the WADA/ASADA view of the duty of care of support staff.

No doubt the Sharks board took this action to exculpate themselves but they have a responsibility to the members who elected them.

It could take five years but eventually, if Cronulla as a club is deemed guilty, it may lose its NRL licence.

Perhaps one reason why the board recommended its 14 players take early guilty pleas and accept six-month bans was the disruption to the club and the league over premiership points lost through fielding guilty players.

The drugs saga threatens to be a protracted one because ASADA is under-resourced.

ASADA usually has six investigations running simultaneously, sometimes simply the import of a steroid assigned to a sub-district rugby union player. Now it has an inquiry embroiling Australia’s two dominant football codes.

Protocol is very important to ASADA but I suspect the scale of the potential doping breaches meant it created a short-circuit step in the Sharks probe. ASADA’s standard procedure is to prepare evidence, record the interviews and make a recommendation to an independent Anti-Doping Rule Violation Board which then hears the case and determines penalty or, in the case of Cronulla, the relevant body issuing sanctions is the NRL doping panel.

In other words, the investigators can’t determine penalty.

The suspect player’s club does not become involved in the process, right up to charges being laid, unless he gives ASADA permission. Yet ASADA has already met with the NRL and Sharks and nominated 14 players potentially guilty.

This is a breach of standard procedure, unless ASADA was tabling evidence to Cronulla of a general issue, not specific to any individual player nature.

The Sharks are first up because ASADA clearly has a whistleblower. Read the Australian Crime Commission report and the responses of Sharks officials and it’s apparent someone has already tipped off the authorities, possibly to discount his sanction.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.