Nobody at Cronulla can quite bring themselves to say it, even if it's true: the best thing that ever happened to the Sharks was the doping scandal that almost killed them. \n "There were no winners out of it," Sharks back-rower Wade Graham says coldly. "It was just a shit situation. Nobody knew what was going on. You were living week-to-week, not knowing what the day was going to bring. What am I going to do next year, next month, next week?" Captain Paul Gallen won't come at it, either. "I'd rather not have gone through it," he says dismissively. "Wade and I hear about people going through tough times and we have a bit of a giggle. We are stronger people because of it." Chairman Damian Keogh is often told how well the Sharks played the drawn-out ASADA investigation into the use of peptides at the club in 2011 under the supervision of Stephen Dank. "You're so smart how you dealt with that instead of Essendon," people tell him, referencing the way the AFL powerhouse dug in, fought hard and had their list for this season crippled with player suspensions. In reality, the Sharks couldn't dig in because they didn't have the funds to do so. "The biggest advantage was we had no money so I stopped spending it on lawyers and PR people," Keogh admits. "It was an incident where the people administering it didn't know what they were doing, the governing body didn't know what it was doing, the club didn't know what it was doing in terms of handling it." Nobody at Cronulla wants to talk about the doping scandal in grand final week but it's impossible to ignore. For the past 50 years, the Sharks have been on the brink of financial collapse on countless occasions, asking players to play for half their salaries, having been swallowed up and saved by Super League, coming close to premierships but then never looking so far away. Then they were rocked by the biggest doping scandal rugby league has witnessed. Relocation was suggested. Financial collapse seemed inevitable. A new high-powered board was installed, the players were gifted backdated suspensions that equated to just three weeks and now, just two years after finishing last, Cronulla are one victory over Melbourne away from their maiden premiership. More than that, the Sharks have gone from being the cuddly side from the Shire we all adored, with ET and Sparkles McGaw and coach Johnny Lang, to a pack of junkyard dogs who the fans from other clubs cannot cop. Fifita. Ennis. Gallen. And a coach in Shane Flanagan some within in the game – and this includes his peers – believe should never have been allowed near a football team again. \n There was only one winner out of the Cronulla doping scandal … and somehow it was Cronulla. # # # Like many things in life, you can place the blame for the ongoing financial problems at Cronulla at the feet of the booze bus. In 1977, the Cronulla Leagues Club was relocated from right on the train line at Caringbah to its current location on Captain Cook Drive, adjacent to its home ground at Woolooware. Five years later, random breath-testing was introduced in NSW. All of a sudden it was risky to drive the Valiant home after a skinful of Resch's. "The Leagues Club was isolated," says Gavin Miller, an international and 178-game club legend. For decades, the most powerful rugby league clubs were the ones funded by a profitable Leagues Club. The Sharkies never had that luxury. In 1978, they played Manly in their second grand final, having lost to the same side in the infamous bloodbath decider of 1973. Locked at 11-all with minutes remaining, centre Steve Rogers almost snatched the win with a desperate field goal attempt. He missed. In the midweek replay, Manly won 16-0. That same year, players had walked around the ground before matches literally with cap in hand, asking fans to throw donations into a bucket to keep the club going. Miller recalls former secretary Arthur Wynn telling the players in 1983 they would have to play for half the pay, which they agreed to on the proviso the board stood aside. In the early 1990s, when Shane Richardson was chief executive and Lang was coach, the Sharks were starting to rebuild thanks to the emergence of some strong local juniors in Mat Rogers, Dean Treister and Adam Ritson. Financially, though, they were about to collapse. In 1993, the club was forced into receivership. Then Super League came along. If not for News Limited's bottomless pit of money, according to Richardson, the club would have lost all of its young talent – or folded altogether. Not only did the rebel league save the Sharks, it helped them prosper. They lost the 1997 Super League grand final to a Broncos side loaded with internationals, but some say their best chance to win the competition came two years later. Dragons playmaker Anthony Mundine mesmerised them in the 1999 preliminary final and the side's chance of a premiership slipped away, just as it had in the past. Still, the Cronulla faithful appeared content. "Sharks fans are unbelievably loyal and supportive," Lang says. "If anything, they are too loyal and supportive. They are too good to their players." Lang went on to coach Souths towards the end of his career and he makes an interesting distinction between the mindsets of both sets of supporters. "For Sharks fans, it's nice to have the footy team as part of their lives," he says. "For Souths fans, the club is a part of who they are." Maybe that indifference comes from the absence of a premiership. Cronulla brought in two premiership-winning coaches in Chris Anderson and Ricky Stuart but they could not get the job done, mostly because of a lack of resources. Some clubs just don't have a premiership in their woodwork. It's not in their DNA. Whatever you do, don't mention such things to Miller. He bristles when you roll out former coach Jack Gibson's immortal line from the mid-80s: "Waiting for Cronulla to win the premiership is like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt." Says Miller: "Jack could be blasé about it. He'd won five premierships at two other clubs. I'm so jealous of this current bunch of players. To win a premiership for Cronulla would be the greatest thing." # # # Nobody at Cronulla wants to talk about the doping scandal in grand final week – but that doesn't stop James Maloney from cracking jokes about it. "You can make jokes about it now," says the cheeky playmaker, who joined Cronulla from the Roosters this season. "It can be laughed off. I haven't had those hard times. But it holds those who did in good stead. What doesn't kill you …" Only two of the 17 players from that 2011 season who were handed show cause notices by ASADA remain. (Jayson Bukuya was mostly injured that season and was not in the sights of the anti-doping body). When I spoke to Graham at the Sharks' media session on Tuesday, it was obvious the entire episode has had a significant impact on his life. "It builds your character," he says. "I know for myself, I learnt about what was real and what isn't real. Living in the now, not worrying about the future. It taught me a lot of lessons – but I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy. I was never worried about being banned for a long time. It was just more about when it was going to end. I'm proud that I can be that low but get here now. "Me and Gal don't really talk about it. It's unspoken: we've been through the shit times, when nobody wanted to be our friend, when everyone was writing us off. All we really had was each other. Now we're preparing for the biggest week in the club's history." From the moment the federal government held its infamous media conference at Parliament House, those at Cronulla started pointing fingers in all directions. There's little value in trawling through the sins of the past, but the distinction between what Dank had done at the Sharks and what he'd engineered at Essendon is clear. With the support of coach James Hird, Bombers players were in 2012 pumped full of unknown substances. Cronulla's three-week dalliance with peptides – some taken orally, some in the form of creams, some via injections – was merely another case of the club fumbling around in the dark, just as it had for most of its history, only this time with dire consequences. Fingers were pointed at strength and conditioning coach Trent Elkin, who pointed fingers at Flanagan, who pointed to the fact there was no chief executive in place, so financially crippled was the club beneath the weight of $13 million of debt. Everyone was to blame but nobody really was because the club was devoid of corporate governance. The truly disturbing picture of what happened at the Sharks during that three-week period came to light in March when Dank marched News Corp up the steps of the Supreme Court. He was seeking damages for a Daily Telegraph article from April 2013 that claimed Dank had accelerated the death of Sharks player Jon Mannah from cancer because of the use of peptides. The jury found in favour of News Corp, ruling: "Stephen Dank administered to football players peptide drugs (CJC-1295 and GHRP-6) which were prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Authority. He acted with reckless indifference to Mannah's life by administering dangerous peptides to Mannah whilst Mannah was in the remissions stage of cancer. By administering peptides to Jon Mannah he accelerated Mannah's death from cancer." Some of the game's best coaches will tell you the buck stops with the coach, no matter what. In fairness to Flanagan, they have never coached a club like Cronulla. But the notion of "plausible deniability" still doesn't wear with many of those who have been around footy for decades. When Keogh and his ticket swept to power, they were met with the challenge of saving a club on the brink of collapse – and whether to stand by a coach who had been suspended by the NRL for 12 months. They extended Flanagan's contract when others believe he should have been sacked. "It wasn't an easy decision at the time," Keogh admits. "We went with the decision and I think it was the right decision in hindsight. You have to make decisions and when you do it's not just making the decision but how you back up that decision and what you put behind it. "We had to be pragmatic. He had recruited a large part of that team. I think had we not reappointed him we would not be where we are today and we'd still be rebuilding. We honestly do believe there is potential for Shane to be a career coach with us and continue to grow and develop." A former Sydney Kings star who moved to Sydney from Melbourne in the mid-1980s and then became a highly-successful businessman, Keogh makes a startling admission about what he feels about the club he has turned around. "I wasn't a passionate, invested supporter," he says. "I had been involved with some business turnarounds and sport. The motivation was to turn the club around. I looked at the books and said there was an opportunity to fix that … But, mate, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. "[Former Broncos chief executive] Bruno Cullen had been put in for a while by the NRL and he was pretty convinced it was beyond saving because he headed off as soon as he could. It was pretty dire. But I know from experience some of the best times to come in is when there are turnaround opportunities." Aside from turning around the club's finances – it is expected to finish this season in the black for the first time in its history – there has been a significant cultural shift. Perennial bad boy Todd Carney was pushed out the door, Lyall Gorman took over from Steve Noyce as chief executive, and those on the inside say Gallen is no longer the dominant character he once was. They are no longer the premiership-less side we all want to cuddle. They are the niggly, angry side with some recent history that doesn't rest easily with many people. "But that's the thing for me," Graham says. "It's just noise. What matters for me is what my teammates, family, friends think of me. As long as we're honest and accountable to each other. I'm completely comfortable with who I am as a person. I can sleep at night."