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Cronulla versus Essendon: deal or no deal?

Cronulla have become the first team to qualify for the NRL grand final, defeating North Queensland.
Cronulla versus Essendon: deal or no deal?
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Cronulla took the ban. Essendon didn't.

Cronulla could be premiers. Essendon came last.

The contrast is stark between NRL club Cronulla and AFL club Essendon.

Both dealt with scandals over their supplements programs at the same time.

Both clubs were linked to controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank, who denied any wrongdoing.

Both clubs were offered bans. Both reacted differently.

Cronulla took the deal, grudgingly. They're in Sunday's NRL grand final.

Essendon didn't. They finished last this AFL season.

Right now, Essendon players are probably wondering: what if?

What if we took the deal? What if our club responded like Cronulla?

Both clubs were the focus of a two-year investigation by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) into the use of banned substances.

In August 2014, ASADA reportedly offered both clubs a penalty: 12-month bans, backdated, for Cronulla players involved. There is conjecture they offered six-month bans, backdated, for Essendon players involved.

A dozen Cronulla players from their 2011 squad accepted just before the end of the 2014 NRL season. The backdating meant they effectively served a three-match ban.

Some 34 Essendon players from the club's 2014 squad followed club advice and refused to deal. The club fought. And ultimately lost. The players were banned for the entire 2016 AFL season.

Professor Bob Stewart, from Victoria University's College of Sport and Exercise Science, has studied the cases amid his wider research into drugs in sport. And he's in no doubt.

"They (Essendon players) would be beyond envy of what Cronulla have done, at every level," Stewart told AAP.

Pragmatism versus idealism. Acceptance versus arrogance. Cronulla versus Essendon.

"The so-called silver tails of Essendon versus the working boys of Cronulla," Stewart said.

"In hindsight, Cronulla were very smart.

"They were pragmatic enough to understand they were in a pickle and they thought 'what is the best worst outcome'.

"And that is what they got. You could say they were actually quite astute.

"Whereas Essendon, this glamour AFL club with all the success and all the resources, thought they could bludgeon their way through the whole mess.

'But they didn't."

On Sunday, two Cronulla players who were banned - Paul Gallen and Wade Graham - will compete in the NRL grand final.

And coach Shane Flanagan, who was suspended by the NRL for 12 months over governance issues, will be their coach.

Meanwhile, the 34 Essendon players have just finished serving their bans - some have since retired, some have since moved to other AFL clubs.

Of the banned batch, a dozen were on Essendon's playing roster this year. And 10 have re-signed, or recommitted, to playing with the Bombers again next season.

But James Hird, who coached the Bombers in 2012 and was banned for 12 months by the AFL for bringing the game into disrepute, won't be there.

Hird, after serving his ban, returned to coach Essendon in 2015, but quit with three games remaining in the season.

Stewart said the attitude of Hird compounded the mess at Essendon.

"He believed that he should be exonerated from everything and that he wasn't part of the problem," Stewart said.

"Cronulla were quite clever, they understood that 'we have a problem'.

"You can argue about the technicalities of those peptide hormones but in the end at least one of them, if not two of them, were clearly banned substances."

Essendon and Hird chose to argue "the technicalities of law and causation", maintaining they were fighting circumstantial evidence of any wrongdoing.

"But if you add the circumstantial evidence together, which is what WADA did in the (Essendon) appeal, you can't help think that something is going funny here," Stewart said.

"And that is something Essendon weren't prepared to admit. And maybe they didn't even know. Maybe they didn't quite understand what was being done to these players.

"At Cronulla, again, maybe they were just more pragmatic and understood in a more simple intellectual way that this is the way out."

Essendon players were banned in January this year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which heard the case when ASADA appealed an earlier not guilty finding by the AFL's Anti-Doping Tribunal.

Essendon continue to fight.

They have lodged an appeal against the CAS verdict to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, literally their last resort.

The appeal could be heard in November this year. It's also the month when the banned Bombers return to the club's official preseason training.

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