In Russell’s case, his honesty came at a hefty price. On Tuesday, he gathered the entire squad together onto Shark Park to tell them he was stepping down as Cronulla chief executive.
“It’s funny, I spoke to the players,” Russell said. “It was one year to the day that I stood in that same spot on the field when they all got called in.
“One year ago I’m punching the air thinking ‘far out, this is my dream job, it’s an exciting challenge’.
“In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined what’s transpired, what’s happened.
“It’s surreal, it’s really disappointing.”
What happened is this. Russell’s first appointment was former NRL salary cap auditor Jamie L’Oste-Brown, tasked with making sure all business conducted at the Shire outfit was above board. L’Oste-Brown had only just got his feet under the desk when he came across a promised $50,000 third-party payment (TPA) to former player Chris Heighington that didn’t pass the smell test.
History has shown that, when club officials come across such files, they tend to disappear. Russell had a choice to make.
“I’ll tell you what I did,” Russell said.
When I came in here I said every decision I make will be in the best interests of the club. I leave knowing I stuck to that.
Outgoing Sharks CEO Barry Russell
“A file was given to my new compliance and governance manager and he was told ‘this file stinks’.
“He looked at it and came into see me. The guy is in the job for two weeks. You put in a new compliance and governance manager because you want to make sure you have best practice, that’s what you do.
“And then he tells you to come and look at this. You have a look and I went ‘we’ve got a problem’.
“It wasn’t a big problem, but we had a problem . . . the rest is history.”
Turns out it was a rather large problem after all. The file was just the tip of the iceberg. Russell reported the matter to the NRL, and the subsequent investigation uncovered a raft of salary cap rorts. Head office found that a Sharks director had set up a company with the express purpose of providing players with TPAs, in contravention to rules requiring such deals to be at arm’s length from the club. The ensuing probe also cost Cronulla its premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan and, among other sanctions, will force the club to part with a contracted player before the seasons kicks off.
“I didn’t think it would end this way,” said Russell, who won the prestigious Rothmans medal during his playing stint at the Sharks.
“I’m a club man, I bleed blue, black and white. At 14 years old I put my first Matthews Cup Cronulla jersey on.
“When I came in here I said every decision I make will be in the best interests of the club. I leave this place knowing I stuck to that right through to the end.
“It makes me sad that what’s happened has happened. I could never imagine it.”
Russell’s decision to self-report the breach was made with the backing of the board, but he carried the burden of the fallout on his own. Some inside and outside the club viewed him as a snitch, and the saga took a tremendous toll on him and his family.
Russell offered his resignation on several occasions but was convinced to stay on until the case was closed. The popular narrative is that he was forced out – “I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of what went on” – but the former halfback would have done it all the same again regardless.
“I’m really sad and disappointed about where it’s all gone and what’s happened, absolutely,” he said.
“It’s been a tough 12 months for the club and a tough 12 months for me.
“I can look back on my 12 months here, it’s been one hell of a ride. It’s been up and down and up and down. It’s been stressful, it’s been hard on me and my family, it’s been hard on the club. What I can say is I’m so proud of the players because they are one amazing group of people. They stood up and I shielded them from all this crap. I said to the leadership group ‘you look after the team and play footy and I’ll handle all the rest of it’.”
He leaves the club with a major sponsor, a squad that will soon be cap compliant and a clear conscience. It wouldn’t surprise to see him re-emerge at Rugby League Central, where he is highly regarded for making the tough decision.
“I honestly don’t know what the future holds,” Russell said.
“Everything I have in my life is because of rugby league, is because of this club.”
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.