NRL’s 17 days to save a shattered game
Never has the NRL faced 17 days like this.
The governing body has just over two weeks to lift a pall of uncertainty, address player behavioural issues and help rebuild its damaged brand as a staggering 10 separate NRL clubs confront off-field turmoil.
The season launch on March 7 is at risk of being overshadowed by discontent from club administrators, players, sponsors and supporters.
St George Illawarra, Cronulla, Wests Tigers, Manly, Canterbury, North Queensland, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith and Brisbane each have NRL Integrity Unit case files which need to be closed.
The majority of clubs have repeatedly asked the NRL to urgently resolve their matters, for good or bad, in order to ensure they can start the season with a clean slate.
The list doesn't include former NRL star Jarryd Hayne's sexual assault charge which will next go before the courts in April. He intends to plead not guilty.
Such is the string of issues the integrity unit need to finalise, chief executive Todd Greenberg is considering delivering his punishment to the majority of clubs and individuals on one day, possibly as early this week, in a bid to avoid daily negative headlines.
The lead items confronting the code are:
* The possible suspension of St George Illawarra's Jack de Belin following his rape charge;
* Salary cap investigations into Cronulla and the Wests Tigers;
* Punishment of Canterbury recruit Dylan Napa for his lewd WhatsApp videos;
* Whether Manly's Dylan Walker will be suspended, even if he is found not guilty in court of domestic violence charges, later this month;
* A one-match ban to be announced this week for Eels rising star Jaeman Salmon for drink-driving and colliding with three parked cars
The de Belin case has rocked the code with the ARL Commission realising that due to public sentiment they have no choice but to review their player behaviour policy at a meeting on February 28.
It would be viewed as abnormal for the code to suspend a player who is pleading not guilty to a charge - as serious as it is - which is why a divide of opinion exists from club bosses.
However, Greenberg has indicated he won't rule out standing the NSW Origin forward down as "each case needs to be judged on its merits.''
What isn't up for debate is that the NRL's major sponsors are nervous about the string of incidents which the game is confronted by.
ARL chairman Peter Beattie has repeatedly declared the code is at risk of losing its commercial appeal, while it avoids addressing issues around violence towards women.
The Sunday Telegraph contacted the majority of the NRL's 25 major sponsors last week.
Most of them refused to comment publicly on their view of the NRL's handling of the de Belin case.
The most significant response came from Youi, the official NRL referees sponsor whose contract is due to expire with the NRL at the end of this year.
"Youi does not condone any form of violence and takes the issue of player conduct very seriously,'' a Youi spokeswoman said.
"The incidents we have witnessed recently have been unacceptable, and we have been actively engaging in discussions with the NRL on their response.
"Players should be held to account for their actions, and we expect the NRL will address these issues and rebuild the values we support.''
The Sharks have waited 172 days for the NRL to finalise a salary cap investigation into the club which started after Cronulla self-reported to the league.
Sharks officials have told the NRL the damage has already been done with the loss of their coach Shane Flanagan, a $1 million fine and the likelihood of starting the season without a major sponsor.
The NRL have promised the Sharks "the integrity unit are working around the clock" to close the case.
Another major fine and salary cap impingement for this season is still on the cards.
It has been suggested that as a result the Sharks could be forced to lose star signing Shaun Johnson.
However, Cronulla CEO Barry Russell has told Johnson he isn't going anywhere because they are several hundred thousand dollars under the cap for this season and still have two spots remaining in their top 30 roster to fill.
The Tigers are also desperate for clarity.
Under investigation for promising Robbie Farah a job worth $639,000 once he retires, the Tigers recruitment team are unable to sign or extend the contract of a player.
The $639,000 is to be added to this year's salary cap, should they be found to have worked outside the cap rules.
The Tigers also have a $750,000 fine for the breach hanging over them, while just two weeks before the new season they remain without a CEO due to Justin Pascoe's suspension over the alleged breach.
The Tigers also have players Michael Chee Kam and Zane Musgrove facing court on assault charges. Musgrove intends to plead not guilty.
The Integrity Unit and Commission will also be forced to address assault charges which have been laid against Newcastle's Tautau Moga, Penrith's Liam Coleman and Broncos NRL registered player Myles Taueli.
Coleman intends to plead not guilty.
Taueli has received a two-year prison sentence for a violent Christmas Day assault.
The Cowboys are also waiting on whether Scott Bolton will be punished by the NRL after he was placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond after pleading guilty to common assault of a woman in May last year. No conviction was recorded.
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