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Scott Bailey

From disillusioned and hiding, Flanagan is back in NRL

After an emotional roller-coaster ride, Shane Flanagan is back coaching with St George Illawarra. (Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS)

There were times in the past five and a half years when Shane Flanagan wanted nothing more to do with rugby league.

Banned from the game and enduring an emotional nightmare, Cronulla's premiership-winning coach was consigned to hiding on the Shark Park hill to watch his son Kyle play.

"I was just disillusioned with everything that had happened," Flanagan told AAP. 

"I wasn't thinking straight. I wasn't happy with what had happened. 

"It was a tough period, and I just probably needed a bit of time away from the game as well."

Shane Flanagan (left) and Paul Gallen
Shane Flanagan (left) and Paul Gallen share the joy of winning the 2016 NRL premiership. (Craig Golding/AAP PHOTOS)

Flanagan will return to the coach's box as the man in charge of St George Illawarra in Saturday night's Charity Shield against South Sydney.

It will mark his first game in charge since Cronulla's controversial preliminary final loss to Melbourne at AAMI Park in 2018.

That match was remembered for Billy Slater's shoulder charge that almost cost him a farewell grand final, but also spelled the end of Flanagan.

Within months, the NRL had uncovered evidence of Flanagan communicating with the Sharks while serving a ban in 2014 for the club's peptides scandal.

At the time, Flanagan was of the belief he did nothing wrong. He believed that because he had to renegotiate his own contract for 2015 while suspended, emails regarding retention for that year and beyond did not amount to coaching the club.

Still the NRL's response was swift in December of 2018. 

Flanagan was deregistered by the NRL and then-CEO Todd Greenberg wouldn't guarantee Cronulla's only premiership-winning coach a return.

"I didn't want to go to games any more," Flanagan said.

"But Kyle was playing, he was at the Sharks, so that was a challenge as well. 

"It was an emotional nightmare for me, hiding in the darkest corner of a ground with my hat on, so fans ... wouldn't be talking to me. 

Shane Flanagan
Shane Flanagan would watch from the stands while his son Kyle played for the Sharks. (Craig Golding/AAP PHOTOS)

"I appreciated all the support. Sharks supporters still to this day are fantastic to me, but at that period of time, I couldn't see that. 

"You look at any coach who gets terminated, I don't think they're going to their games the next year. I had to go to every game.

"I just wanted to curl up in a corner and stay out of it all, but I had to go and support Kyle."

Flanagan's path since is well known.

The NRL green-lit his return to the game as an assistant at the Dragons for 2020, and he was also Manly's attacking coach last year.

Through it all, he remained confident he would earn another chance at the helm of a club.

"I look back on it now and say 'Toughen up princess, it wasn't that hard'," Flanagan quipped. 

"But at the time, it was.

"I always thought I would (be back). It was just a matter of finding the right job at the right time. 

"I have a bit of a history here with the club, I understand the challenges that are current. I had a bit of a head start, so I thought it was a good fit."

Flanagan may need that head start.

The Dragons are in the midst of the longest finals drought in the club's history, having not made the top eight since 2018.

They also finished second-last last season, failed to win a game away from home, and ranked 14th in attack and 15th in defence.

Anthony Griffin has come and gone as coach without a finals appearance, after replacing Paul McGregor in 2021.

But Flanagan insists things are not as bad as they look.

Seven of the Dragons' 19 losses last year were by six points or less, and they went on a run of five matches early in 2023 where goalkicking was the difference.

"Whether they were unlucky, goalkicking, save a try, score a try, they weren't as bad as they looked," Flanagan said.

"But on the whole you're judged on the win-loss category, and they underachieved."

Flanagan has said he will return a more experienced coach than the man who last led Cronulla in 2018.

His son Kyle has described him as calmer, while Dragons players have lauded more variety in training and a heavy emphasis put on being a much fitter club.

But Flanagan is still the same man in some regards. 

He has been vocal in the player market, believes he can land the big fish required to turn the roster around, and knows as well as anyone it can happen quickly.

"The Dragons are in a better spot than everyone thinks," Flanagan said.

"When I first started at the Sharks, they had no money, none whatsoever. I had to build a gym, the facilities were terrible. We had no CEO for 18 months. 

"But I got an opportunity to create what I wanted to do at that club. 

"In 2014 I wasn't at the club, but they got the wooden spoon. In 2015 we were one game off a grand final, and won in 2016. 

"That showed how quickly you can change. This club is in a very similar situation. 

"If we have a bit of luck and can make some big signings, two or three big signings from late 2024 or 2025, we're on the road."

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