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Brief doping ban handed to rugby league players draws criticism, WADA to investigate further

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SYDNEY - National Rugby League chief executive Dave Smith confirmed Saturday that 12 past and current Cronulla Sharks players have accepted backdated 12-month doping bans for illegal supplements use, meaning most will miss only three games.

Ending an 18-month investigation, Cronulla captain Paul Gallen and 11 of his current or former teammates accepted the bans backdated to Nov. 21, 2013, meaning that most will miss only their remaining regular-season matches this season.

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) said Cronulla operated a program in 2011 under which players were administered injections, pills and creams which contained banned peptides or growth hormones. Use of such substances would usually carry a two-year ban under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) protocols.

ASADA instead elected for the more lenient backdated one-year ban, prompting criticism from some.

On Saturday, despite the ASADA deal, WADA chief executive David Howman said "the matter is not concluded."

"WADA has not received a brief of evidence and is yet to determine if the sanctions are appropriate based on that evidence and the application of the code," he said in an email to former WADA head John Fahey, an Australian.

Other officials said the case could be taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in a bid to get the penalties increased.

But in an ASADA statement Saturday, chief executive Ben McDevitt said his agency felt the current sanctions would stand.

"Throughout this process I have been in constant personal contact with ... David Howman and the architect of the World Anti-Doping Code," McDevitt said. "I am confident that our handling of the process is fully compliant with the code."

The banned substances were also given to players at Australian Football League club Essendon, at the suggestion of a sports scientist hired by both teams. Both Essendon and Cronulla players have denied they knew the supplements were in violation of WADA's rules, but the AFL and NRL have already suspended some officials and coaches from both teams.

Later Saturday, Smith, while announcing other new measures to avoid a repeat of the supplements saga, said the NRL was banning biochemist Stephen Dank, the sports scientist behind both programs at Cronulla and Essendon.

"Club medical, football and coaching staff to be registered and accredited — this means anyone who is regularly involved with players and can influence their welfare is accountable and bound by the NRL's rules," the NRL said in a statement. "The new accreditation process would ensure the NRL never allows Stephen Dank to have further involvement in the game."

Athletes from other sports reacted angrily to the backdated 12-month ban.

In a Twitter post on Friday, London Olympics swimming gold medallist Melanie Schlanger said: "A backdated 12 month ban for taking a banned substance?! Players to miss only a few games?! I feel sad for sport today."

"I trust no one. I am well aware that I alone am responsible for everything I put in my body. Known that since I was 14."

Schlanger said that before she received a recent flu shot, she checked out all the ingredients with those on the WADA prohibited list before allowing a team doctor to inject her.

Olympic long jump silver medallist Mitchell Watt was critical of what he saw as inconsistency in sanctions.

"Take prohibited drugs, get a 10 week ban," he said on Twitter. "Accidentally give ASADA the wrong address of your house, get a 2 year ban. Truly ludicrous."

Under the so-called "whereabouts" rule, athletes must provide drug testers with their current address or where they plan to be — months in advance.

Australian weightlifter Damon Kelly said amateur athletes felt cheated by a perception of double standards applying to them and footballers from the country's major professional codes.

"I doubt that any Olympic sport would get that leniency," said Kelly, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist in Delhi four years ago. "I've been getting drug tested for 16 years. We're always told and educated that what you put in your body is your responsibility. It seems like they operate on a set of different expectations and rules. It seems if you're a popular sport you can get away with it. Everyone just thinks it's a big joke."

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