Paul Gallen felt trapped between his loyalty towards Shane Flanagan and his duty as captain of Cronulla amidst the fall out of Flanagan’s exit from the Sharks.
Flanagan, who helped end Cronulla’s 50-year wait for a maiden premiership in 2016, resigned from his role as head coach of the Sharks last month.
The NRL deregistered Flanagan in December and fined the Sharks $800,000 after the governing body found he had breached the terms of his 12-month suspension in 2014 for his role in the club’s peptides scandal due to his communications with the club that year.
John Morris, who was an assistant coach under Flanagan, has since been appointed as Cronulla’s head coach.
Both knockabout blokes and plumbers by trade, Gallen and Flanagan have been personal friends for 20 years.
They will forever be linked in the history of the Cronulla Sharks as the captain and coach that led the club to its first title.
But Gallen told the Leader it had been tough seeing his mate ‘Flanno’ go through a dark time.
“It was tough. Actually I felt a lot of pressure with it. I felt like I was stuck in the middle a little bit until I had the conversation with Flanno and he told me he was resigning,” he said.
“I’d spoken about it to him and he said ‘please don’t feel like that. You’ve had a great career, go and finish it off’.
“He’s got no animosity towards the club or me supporting the club. And that to me reflects on Shane Flanagan as a person. With everything he’s going through, to put the club first and letting everyone move forward.
“I’ve got a lot to thank him for over the years and that was just another thing because it was a big weight off my shoulders.
“He’s a lot better now. The Christmas period was tough but he’s been ok now. I’ve had a few cheeky texts from him recently which makes me think he’s hopefully getting back to the old Flanno.”
Many would forgive Cronulla for feeling under siege given their tumultuous off-season.
What has been lost among the club’s financial punishment and loss of their head coach is the fact Cronulla still have the NRL’s salary cap investigation – and any potential further punishment – hanging over their heads.
On the field, the Sharks had a bombshell dropped on them in November when their star fullback and player of the year Valentine Holmes requested and was granted a release from the final year of his contract to pursue a career in the NFL.
Losing a star at just 23-years-old who had the potential to become a once in a generation player would be enough the shake most clubs.
Sharks co-captain Wade Graham will miss the first half of the season with a knee injury while veteran Luke Lewis has retired, leaving a hole in Cronulla’s back row.
But Gallen said the doom and gloom that appears to be hanging over the club was restricted to outside the playing group.
“Obviously it all happened so fast. It was a whirlwind, the last month. I think it’s a good appointment. Bomber’s dedication throughout the last five weeks has been great,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s been so hard for him. But in terms of preparing the team’s training sessions, his work ethic on top of his actual coaching he’s been first class.
“[Pre-season] has been great. I’ve been hearing a lot of this, that we’re having issues. And outside our four walls maybe we have. But I've got to say our preparation, the way we’ve trained, has been fine. There’s no issues.
“We don’t buy into it. I can’t fault one player with their commitment and dedication and effort to pre-season so far. [Assistant coach] Jim Dymock as well has been great supporting Bomber. All in all pre-season has been pretty good. It doesn’t guarantee a successful season but we’ve put ourselves in a good position and built a solid platform to start from.”
Cronulla’s squad is still as strong as any. With the loss of Holmes, Jesse Ramien, Edrick Lee and Ricky Leutele, the Sharks have added New Zealand international Shaun Johnson and the experienced Josh Morris.
And they still have a host of current and former representative stars. Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan, Andrew Fifita, Aaron Woods as well as Gallen and Graham make theirs a formidable side.
Gallen believes there is also opportunity for young players like Kyle Flanagan, Blayke Brailey and Bronson Xerri as well as some young back-rowers to stake a claim for a place in first grade.
“I don’t like talking about premierships at this time of year. Top four is an opportunity for us, no doubt about it,” he said.
“I think we’re probably a bit skinny in the back row with Luke Lewis retiring. He was just there every week. Obviously we’ll be missing Wade for the first half of the season just about. It’s a really good opportunity for a couple of young blokes.
“I like the look of Briton Nikora on the right edge at training, he’s a player of the future. Training and games are very different things but he’s doing everything right. Then you’ve got [Kurt] Capewell, [Scott Sorensen] fighting so we’ve got good competition for spots and the opportunity for someone to step up and take their chance.”