NRL war as Knights fuel fire over criminal behaviour
NEWCASTLE Knights boss Phil Gardner will take the extraordinary step of fronting his entire playing group on Friday and telling them any player charged with a serious criminal offence involving a woman will be stood down.
As outrage intensifies over the St George Illawarra's decision not to take immediate action against star forward Jack de Belin until his aggravated sexual assault charge is finalised in court, The Daily Telegraph can also reveal the majority of NRL players are privately supporting, through talks with the Rugby League Players Association, the Dragons' stance not to bench de Belin.
With decision day looming at a meeting of the Australian Rugby League Commission next Thursday, it only ups the pressure on ARLC chairman Peter Beattie and NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg, who now have two very powerful groups standing in opposing corners on an issue that has divided the game.
The Knights take on the Dragons on Saturday afternoon at Jubilee Oval, although de Belin will not be playing due to sickness.
Dragons chief executive Brian Johnston continued to stand by his besieged NSW State of Origin forward when asked by The Daily Telegraph why the club would allow de Belin to play before the court case was settled.
"As I have stated before, this is a very difficult and complex issue and our club has made the decision to allow Jack to play because of the contractual and welfare obligations, as well as advice to suggest that any action taken by the club may interfere with the fairness of the judicial process," Johnston responded.
"The one-sided allegations in the public domain are exactly what he is pleading not guilty to and we believe that he deserves the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise via the legal system, at which point, we would take appropriate action, as we have proven to have done in the past."
It is understood the RLPA has met with most NRL clubs in recent weeks to gauge player feedback, and union representatives actually fronted St George Illawarra players on Tuesday, although de Belin was not present.
Dragons players were said to be overwhelmingly supportive that de Belin should be allowed to continue playing after pleading not guilty.
That attitude has been widely reflected among the RLPA's talks with the overall NRL playing group.
As it stands, NRL policy allows players facing criminal charges to continue playing while the matter is before the courts.
But that is set to be challenged at next week's meeting.
Already some of the game's heaviest hitters, including Melbourne chairman Bart Campbell, Sydney Roosters boss Nick Politis and South Sydney's Nick Pappas, have come out swinging with calls for tougher and more immediate sanctions.
Warriors chief executive Cameron George also responded to The Daily Telegraph's questions, saying his club "would stand down a player subject to a serious investigation".
"During the stand-down the player and his family would receive extensive welfare support and counselling. I'm making no comment on the de Belin case," George said.
But Gardner went a step further, revealing he would be telling his players at a face-to-face meeting what they could expect.
"It is not my position to comment on any other club but my own," Gardner said.
"In saying that, if a player at the Knights was charged with a serious offence involving a women, the player would be stood down.
"This would be done in the best interest of the player, club and person bringing the charge to the police.
"I will be fronting our playing group on Friday and relaying this same message so we are clear on where we stand as an organisation."
Gardner also supported calls for the ARLC to stand players down on pay for matters related to serious criminal charges.
"If the NRL were to impose such a policy they would have my support, bearing in mind it is important to let the judicial process run its course," Gardner said.
Johnston said it was not up to the Dragons to make NRL policy, only enforce it.
"Policies are the domain of the NRL and ARLC and if they make a determination to make a change, I would expect that all clubs would have no choice other than to support the policy," Johnston said.
"I would just hope that the legal and welfare considerations are paramount around any discussion and decision and that there is appropriate recognition of the legal system and process."