Billy Slater Cleared By Judiciary, Free To Play In NRL Grand Final

Billy Slater has been found NOT guilty and is free to play in the NRL Grand Final for the Melbourne Storm against the Sydney Roosters on Sunday night in Sydney.

And so, the game of the year will not be robbed of one of its superstars and the career of a champion will be allowed to end on the biggest stage of all, as it should.

It took almost an hour for the NRL judiciary to reach its decision. Recent cases lasted a matter of 10 or 12 minutes. But this was the biggest ever case in the history of the judiciary, and the length of deliberation perhaps reflected that.

NRL Judiciary Hands Down A Not Guilty Verdict For Billy Slater

Slater was charged by the NRL’s match review committee for a grade one shoulder charge on Cronulla winger Sosaia Feki in last weekend’s preliminary final against the Sharks. The rule was amended in early 2017 and it reads:

As part of a change to the Judiciary and Match Review system, a player will be charged if:

  • The contact is forceful, and;
  • The player did not use, or attempt to use, his arms (including his hands) to tackle or otherwise take hold of the opposing player.

This was one of those moments in rugby league, or in any sport, where a player has no time to think. They just act instinctively. Stop the opponent at all costs. The NRL’s match review committee referred Slater to the judiciary because it appeared at first glance that Slater did indeed contact Feki in a forceful way without using his arms.

But did his arm make contact first? Slater argued as much at the judiciary this evening.

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"The whole time, my intention was to make a tackle. It happens earlier than I expected to do but I'm still attempting to wrap my right arm. Even with my left arm is trying to wrap underneath. I was still trying to get my body in a position to get between the ball and the try line," he said.

“I've got a duty to make a tackle, the duty of care is to myself and player Feki,” he continued. “To ensure I don't make a high tackle is a duty to Feki. I feel the contact that was made was unavoidable once he veered back in. I think the decisions I made ensured the safest possible contact was made."

Slater enlisted high profile lawyer Nick Ghabar, who in 2015 was successful in getting Brisbane Broncos player Justin Hodges to the grand final after a judiciary hearing concerning a dangerous throw.

Slater is seen leaving the NRL headquarters following the verdict. Image: AAP

Ghabar pointed to Slater's statement that initial contact in the tackle was made with his arm and said, "If you accept that evidence it's powerful. It ends the hearing”.

That would have been nice. It seemed like half of Sydney was camped outside the judiciary and nobody wanted this thing dragging on a cool evening. They were calling it “the trial of the century”. For a while there, it looked like taking two centuries.

Ghabar also opened his defence by saying:

"What I'm putting to you is this is a situation where a player did not make a conscious decision to use his shoulder. The initial contact was on his left pec. It didn't include his left shoulder. He told you the contact was with the left pec.

"I have no doubt that what sent Feki three or four metres over the sideline was the hips colliding.

"This is not a traditional, if there is a type of thing, shoulder charge. This is not a traditional shoulder charge where players are running directly at each other and players have set themselves. You need to pay specific attention to the angles provided to you."

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The point about the Slater incident not being a traditional shoulder charge was the key issue underlying of this.

Numerous senior figures in the game argued all week that the NRL’s shoulder charge rule -- as it’s currently worded -- makes no sense. The rule exists to prevent huge blokes smashing each other senseless with their shoulders in the centre of the field when they’re running at each other.

Slater is seen leaving the NRL headquarters following a not guilty verdict. Image: AAP

First contact with the shoulder in a last gasp tackle on the sideline sis a different situation entirely, and arguably less dangerous. One person making this point passionately all week was Penrith Panthers supremo and former NSW State of Origin coach Phil Gould.

“Any rule that penalises the collision Billy Slater executed to save a try for his team is a bad rule,” he tweeted earlier this week.

“[I’ve] said this ever since the ban on so-called shoulder charges first introduced. Over zealous policing of shoulder charge leads us to undesirable outcome. Needs to be case by case.”

Case by case indeed. Because according to the letter of the law, after Slater was deemed to have contacted Feki with his shoulder, he had to be referred to the judiciary. Which he was.

After both sides had argued their case, Judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew asked panel members Sean Garlick, Bob Lindner and Mal Cochrane that the emotion around Slater and the fact it's a grand final on the line needs to be completely irrelevant in their determination.

He then asked them to consider the following issues:

  1. Was there forceful contact with the shoulder or upper arm? If not, then Slater is not guilty. If the answer is yes, Bellew continued, then the panel needed to consider:
  2. Was the forceful contact made without Slater using or attempting to use both his arms including his hands to tackle or otherwise take hold of the opposing player?
  3. And lastly, was Slater's conduct careless?

After almost an hour, we had our answer.

Whether Cooper Cronk now takes the field for the Roosters is the next focus of grand final week intrigue. After injuring his shoulder last week, the former Storm halfback –- who would love the chance to face his old teammates in the season-decider –- has been named on the reserves bench but not in the squad of 17.