Why Shane Flanagan must never coach in the NRL again

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Whatever disarray the Dragons might be in, Shane Flanagan is not the answer. As an issue of fundamental sports integrity, it’s inexplicable that there is any path to the Manly assistant and former Dragons employee returning to a head coaching role. He shouldn’t be a candidate.

If the St George Illawarra board guzzles enough of the Kool Aid to decide otherwise, the NRL must surely step in to save the club from the desperation of its own guiding minds.

In September 2019, the NRL announced that Flanagan – who by then was deregistered by the NRL and excluded from rugby league – would be eligible to be registered only as an assistant coach from the following season. Shortly after, the Dragons snapped up his services. He’s since gone to Manly, where by all reports he has added value.

The NRL’s statement concluded by saying Flanagan “has been told the NRL will give no consideration to expediting his return to a head coaching role beyond today’s decision”. And that’s where matters rest. Above the line, at least.

And that’s where matters should end. The reduction of any corresponding ban in racing or any other sport dependent on integrity to survive wouldn’t be entertained. If St George Illawarra do decide to sign Flanagan as the club’s next head coach, the governing body must veto the deal.

Here’s why.

Credit: Illustration: Simon Letch

Just before Christmas 2018, the NRL declared it intended to cancel Flanagan’s registration. The next month, Flanagan quit his position at Cronulla, not because he’d had enough time behind the clipboard but because being a registered person is a mandatory precondition to being employed as a head coach in the NRL.

Flanagan was deregistered after the NRL had earlier that year discovered he had intentionally and slyly ignored the conditions of a previous 12-month ban imposed on him by the NRL in 2013. That earlier sanction demanded Flanagan have nothing to do with the Sharks for the duration of the 2014 season.

Instead of respecting the sanction, Flanagan intentionally, repeatedly and flagrantly ignored it, giving the governing body an almighty “up yours” in the process. Years later, the NRL uncovered evidence of Flanagan’s behaviour and responded by deregistering him in 2018 before partially capitulating on that stance at the end of 2019.

It is also worth revisiting why Flanagan was suspended by the NRL in 2013 because this strikes right at the core responsibilities and obligations of a head coach in any professional sport.

Whatever disarray the Dragons might be in, Shane Flanagan is not the answer.Credit: NRL Photos

In 2013 – a decade ago, although time shouldn’t deaden the actualities here – the NRL made serious and damning findings about the many failures of Flanagan, his Cronulla club and others. Those findings related to an organised, and yet pathetically amateurish, system of administering substances, supplements, snake oil and God-knows-what-else to hoodwinked Sharks footballers. All of this in dangerous circumstances, where the players were exposed to significant potential health dangers.

Regarding Flanagan particularly, the NRL’s investigation determined that he’d failed to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, that he’d failed to properly supervise his senior staff, that he’d failed to take appropriate action to combat actual unsafe medical and administration practices, and that he’d failed to ensure that his staff didn’t intentionally bypass the club’s medical staff. It’s difficult to conceive of failings any more elemental.

Given this, how can the Dragons even consider he is the best person to chart an uncertain on-field future? As a paid-up member of the St George faction, I’d be ashamed if the board opted for Shane Flanagan.

To illustrate what the NRL’s findings actually mean in context, one must turn to a judgment delivered in the Supreme Court of NSW in March 2016 in a defamation case brought by the disgraced pseudo-chemist Stephen Dank against a multitude of defendants, including me (I was the Sharks’ lawyer in relation to the “ASADA crisis”).

That judgment concerned six different defamation cases, all commenced by Dank in relation to the media’s reporting on his pivotal role in doping and duping innumerable Australian athletes and many others.

The court found that the various publications that Dank was suing conveyed specific imputations, including that Dank had administered drugs to players that were banned in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency and that Dank administered dangerous and cancer-causing supplements to players. The court also found the material said Dank acted with reckless indifference to the life of one of those Sharks players, because he administered untested substances to that player while he was in remission from cancer and that Dank accelerated that player’s eventual death from that cancer.

Yet the jury then also determined that each of those imputations was substantially true. Let that resonate with you …

There hasn’t been a greater abhorrence in the history of sport in Australia than that orchestrated by Stephen Dank. The absolute disregard he displayed for the safety and welfare of athletes who placed their trust in him is breathtaking. And the particular head coach, under whose supposed supervision Dank infected the Sharks in 2010 and 2011, was Shane Flanagan. As a St George Illawarra director, how could you justify deciding to trust Flanagan now, even with the passage of time and whatever he may have done to rehabilitate and educate himself?

Almost all the time, almost all people deserve second chances. None of what I have said above should be interpreted as an attempted assassination of Flanagan. In one context, you can understand a desperate club seeking to engage him, he’s a premiership-winning performer after all.

But it would convey absolutely the wrong message on every level if the NRL relaxes the already quite lenient sanctions just because the Dragons see him as a solution to a coaching dilemma.

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