Incoming Cronulla Sharks CEO Barry Russell is keeping an open mind on whether grand final heroes Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis will sign on for another NRL season in 2019.
Both the captain of the 2016 Telstra Premiership champions in Gallen, 36, and the Clive Churchill Medallist in Lewis, 34, are off contract at the end of this season.
Gallen will share the captaincy duties with Wade Graham in 2018, the club announced on Sunday.
Russell, an award-winning Sharks halfback himself in the 1980s and 90s, doesn’t officially move into the chief executive’s office until March 5.
But he is aware of the gamut of questions fans will have for him, including the futures of big-name players like Gallen and Lewis.
“They are two amazing athletes and they are playing career-best footy,” Russell told NRL.com.
“You never try to predict the future. You play each week as it comes. It’s not something that’s occupying anyone right at this moment.
“Shane Flanagan has put together an amazing junior development structure. We’ve got some wonderful talent coming through the club.
“So to have two players like Lewie and Gal – the quality people they are – are core people of our club. Their hungry is like nothing else. I’ve got nothing but respect for those two.”
But as to whether he would re-sign the pair if they wanted to stay in Sharks colours, Russell had to play a straight bat.
“I’m not yet in the chair so I can’t make bold predictions, other than that when the time comes we’ll talk. It’s not something we need to do right now,” he said.
“We need to focus all our attention on winning footy games and lifting that trophy up again.”
The same advice came to any fans who might want to see Ben Barba back at the club after his time in the English Super League.
“I haven’t had a chance to sit down with Shane but we’ve got a really good relationship. Communication will be crucial,” Russell said.
“I’ve got no doubt that not only Ben Barba, but other players from other situations, will be linked to our club. Shane and I will discuss things closely because like me, Shane wants only what’s best for the club. He’s a winner and we’re aligned in those beliefs and goals.
“Whatever situation or opportunity comes up, we’ll look it and we’ll assess it. If it’s the right thing for the club, the team, the players, and is going to help us win competitions, then you never know.”
While the business side of the Sharks will be Russell’s main focus, he is black-white-and-blue boy through and through. A Rothman’s Medallist in 1988, Russell played 77 games for Cronulla from 1985-91.
He was there at ANZ Stadium in October 2016 when Cronulla broke their 49-year drought to win the Telstra Premiership.
“It was a very special moment. And what Gal said to acknowledge the past players, as well as the fans, officials, sponsors… he meant it and it was very nice of him to do it,” Russell said, remembering all those who had gone through three grand finals, six preliminary finals, and two minor premierships without scoring any silverware at the end.
“The challenge is we’ve got to replicate that. It’s got to be the norm (winning titles).”
While Russell leaves that largely in Flanagan’s hands, he will get on with what he does best.
Most recently he has been the commercial sales and business development manager of Harvey Norman commercial – the largest franchise within the Harvey Norman Group. Previously, Russell spent 12 years as the NRL’s commercial sponsorship manager.
Cronulla have long been known as an assets-rich but cash-poor club. But that has all changed in recent years with the addition of a large multi-storey residential complex on their land, adjacent to the Sharks Leagues Club. Retail shops, businesses, restaurants are also planned for this Woolwooware Bay precinct.
“I haven’t gone into any great detail of all the figures involved there. We have an AGM (annual general meeting) coming up and the financials will be fully disclosed then,” Russell said.
“But what I can say is the development, which was years and years in the planning, is now an amazing facility. And once that retail complex is up and running alongside the club there will be no other (football) venue like it in Australia.
“We’re very lucky to own our own ground. Obviously like any football club the goal is to become financially independent; financially strong.
“I’m going to get in there and roll my sleeves up because we’ve got work to do on our commercial partners and commercial corporates areas. That needs immediate attention and that’s where I have the expertise.
“I want to get the basic things done well – maximise traditional revenue channels like corporate hospitality, getting fans filling the stadium, merchandise. Then I want to look at creating other revenue channels and opportunities.
“On the footy side it’s about winning games, having the best possible team and structure and Shane has done a fantastic job with that.
“It’s good to be back.”