Cronulla captain Wade Graham has come to the defence of embattled teammate Josh Dugan, saying his controversial past, an unknown injury and huge salary contribute to the maelstrom around the star's future.
Dugan has not been training at full strength with the Sharks over the pre-season while dealing with a mystery knee injury, but Graham believes the vitriol that surrounds the former Australian and NSW star is unwarranted.
While Dugan's NRL career hangs in the balance waiting for a diagnosis, Graham sees no way to stop the speculation he is being forced out of the final two years of his Sharks contract, which is believed to be worth more than $900,000 this year.
"Throughout his career Duges hasn't always been on the positive side of the narrative. I thought he did a tremendous job in the past couple of seasons actually swinging that back into his favour," Graham told AAP on Thursday.
"He was really honest and candid with the media and he won a lot of fans over, but he still has his detractors.
"When you're in a situation like this where everything comes to a standstill and then it leads to speculation, especially in the off-season where there's nothing else to talk about, it just builds.
"Because of Duges' past and obviously the amount of money (he's earning), it's a reason for people to talk and it creates another story."
Part of the problem is the excess of talent in the Sharks' backline for the season ahead, with Dugan, Matt Moylan, Josh Morris, Bronson Xerri, Jesse Ramien, Sione Katoa and Ronald Mulitalo all fighting for five spots.
However, Graham maintains 2019 was one of Dugan's best seasons at Cronulla, helping the Sharks to the finals despite a horrific injury toll.
The 29-year-old played 23 games at centre, fullback and on the wing, scoring 11 tries - the most in a season since 2014.
"Duges was one of our best players last year in a season where there was a lot of inconsistency with our playing group, myself included," he said.
"There was a lot of injuries and I thought Duges was one of our best players.
"No one is questioning his footy ability, but at the moment he hasn't been able to train because of this knee issue and as the media gets a hold of the fact that he's not training, the speculation grows.
"Everyone goes through this at some stage of their career, so it's nothing new to any player. They're just trying to figure out the best way forward and I don't think they've reached that conclusion yet.
"Ideally as a club and for Duges, they do reach that resolution, because while there isn't a direct plan or path forward, there's always going to be the speculation and that's where we're sitting now and it's not great for anyone."