SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 12: Blues coach Blues coach Brad Fittler arrives at a New South Wales Blues public reception after winning the 2018 State of Origin series at The Star on July 12, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 12: Blues coach Blues coach Brad Fittler arrives at a New South Wales Blues public reception after winning the 2018 State of Origin series at The Star on July 12, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Freddy spills on NRL’s open secret

NSW coach Brad Fittler has launched a surprising defence for the Sharks after the Sydney club was put under the spotlight in a potential salary cap bombshell.

Cronulla's finals charge was thrown a curveball this week after it was revealed the club was being investigated by the NRL's integrity unit over historical claims of cheating the system.

Newly appointed CEO Barry approached the NRL after finding what looked to be a suspicious undisclosed third party deal from the 2015 season, a year before the Sharks won their maiden NRL premiership in 2016.

But Fittler says it's all been blown out of proportion, suggesting Russell's findings were far less severe than those of the Bulldogs and the Storm in years gone by.

"It's always going to happen. It's most probably happening at every club, some sort of misdemeanour," the Blues coach told Channel 9's Wide World of Sports.

"They're quite complicated, salary caps. It doesn't seem like it is in the same ballpark as the Melbourne and the Canterbury-Bankstown (incidents) when they all happened."

Fittler said Cronulla's third party payments will only be suspicious if its proven they've spent more than the Broncos, who benefit more by being in a one-club city like Melbourne.

"If you look at Cronulla, and let's say it's $250,000, then Brisbane have actually paid in third party, maybe an extra million … so who are the Sharks really cheating against?" the 46-year-old said.

"They're cheating against the fact they can't work it in a manner that someone like Brisbane or another club can work it in another third party program."

The Australian reported there was $3.65 million thrown around the NRL in 2017 purely in private sector agreements, which benefit popular and highly marketable players most. Journalist Brent Read said private sector sponsors "are falling over themselves to send cash their way" but also revealed the payment gap between clubs was decreasing over time.

The Sharks have been thrown a curveball ahead of their finals charge.
The Sharks have been thrown a curveball ahead of their finals charge.

"Unless you're manipulating and conniving and doing it in certain ways, then really, unless you're spending more than Brisbane or whoever spend the most on third parties, then you know what - do your best," Fittler continued.

The issue of keeping clubs in check over arm's length-payments is also a spanner in the works for the game's governing body. When asked if it was possible to police third party deals, Fittler replied with a flat no.

"How do they do it? Are they going to be at a cafe when someone slips you a $50 under your avocado smash?" he said.

Former NSW great and NRL Immortal Andrew Johns said he'd like to see all third party deals made public and the salary cap raised.

"Whatever the salary cap is now - $9 million - bring it up to $12 million," he said on Wide World of Sports.

Johns said the raising of the salary cap would fit perfectly with his suggestion to reduce the amount of Sydney teams to make the NRL a 12-club competition.

Both the NRL and the Sharks are adamant that the club's 2018 salary cap is above board - with NRL CEO Todd Greenberg saying they were $500,000 below the salary cap this year.

However it shapes as an unwanted distraction for coach Shane Flanagan and his men, who sit in fourth heading into their final round clash with Canterbury. "I said to the players, what I want them to do, and how they can help me, and how they can help the club, is stay focused," Russell said.

"We have an unbelievable group of players - they really care about where we're going, we want to win this weekend. We want a second premiership and that's our goal." The Sharks have emerged as a dark horse of the competition ever since their gutsy win over ladder leaders Melbourne three weeks ago.

And Russell said they weren't about to have their boat rocked. "There is a lot of data to work through, so that does taketime and our club is being fully co-operative," Russell said.

"But our priority at the moment is for our playing squad to just remain strong, focused on the final series and I believewe have every chance to really give this competition a good shake.

"The squads trained well, this is not affecting them."

- with AAP