Melbourne Storm fullback and rugby league superstar Billy Slater has been cleared to play in the 2018 NRL grand final, after a judiciary decision which has left a lot of fans and commentators equal parts stunned and outraged.
The judiciary panel of former players Mal Cochrane, Bob Lindner and Sean Garlick deliberated for the better part of an hour before clearing Slater of a shoulder charge on Cronulla's Sosaia Feki. The panel had been presented with over two hours of claim and counter claim as Slater and his lawyer Nick Ghabar laid out their defence.
It must be remembered that this was the judiciary of a sporting body, nobody before it is under oath. There is no legal obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Slater insisted that he was in fact attempting to wrap both arms around Feki and the ball in his attempt to prevent a Cronulla try. It was the panel members' job to watch the video evidence before them and decide whether Slater made an effort to complete a legitimate tackle.
After advising the panel that they were to leave emotion and the fact that a grand final appearance was at stake out of their decision, judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew asked them to consider:
"Was there forceful contact with the shoulder or upper arm? If your answer is no, then he is not guilty.
"If you answer yes, you need to consider: 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.
"Was Slater's conduct careless? I remind you he is charged with a careless act, not an intentional act."
It is hard to step through those three considerations and arrive at any other conclusion than that Slater was guilty as charged. A legitimate tackle attempt on Feki should have seen Slater leading with his right shoulder, not the left. His left arm should have been extended, not tucked in tightly against his rib cage.
Another key part of the evidence presented by Slater and his lawyer was that Feki veered towards him prior to contact, greatly reducing Slater's time to execute a legitimate tackle.
"When he plants that left foot his intention changes from going directly to the corner post to going directly at me," Slater said.
"My shoulders and my feet are heading directly to that corner post. He changes and this puts me in a vulnerable position."
Watching the replay over and over you can see Feki's left foot lands a bit wider as he avoids the tackle of Suliasi Vunivalu and he leans in towards Slater to brace for impact, he doesn't appear to veer towards Slater. The collision occurs very near the sideline that Feki was hugging, as he sprinted towards the corner.
All credit must be given to Slater and his legal team for convincing three ex-footballers that a duck was in fact a zebra. They were well prepared, presented their case in a confident and obviously convincing manner and won. It was their imperative to make sure Slater could take the field for one last hurrah.
But the fans have had enough of the confusion surrounding the rules. The obstruction rule and its interpretation seems to changes every couple of months. The definition of a strip has changed, there have been crack-downs on ruck infringements before the nit-picking was shelved and now a shoulder charge is not a shoulder charge.
It remains to be seen what difference this makes to the mentality of players in the decider and beyond. Clearly the best way to stop a flying winger from scoring in the corner is to bury a shoulder in his rib cage and launch him into touch. Faced with the same situation: Will Slater do the same thing? And what of Gerard Sutton who penalised Slater for the Feki hit? He will be the man in the middle for the grand final: How will Sutton respond to a similar hit on Sunday?
This decision coupled with a season of refereeing inadequacies has done far more damage to the image and credibility of the game than any Mad Monday antics could ever do.
The capacity crowd at ANZ Stadium will no doubt get behind Slater for his farewell to rugby league. There will surely be no booing or animosity shown toward him or the decision. If you believe that, you probably believe Slater's hit on Feki wasn't a shoulder charge.
Read on for some of the best social media reactions to last night's decision.
Rules were made to be broken ��I was certain he would be suspended but I'm happy his playing. It's a stupid rule that needs to be addressed. https://t.co/0U02l6TlAx
- jarryd hayne (@JarrydHayne) September 25, 2018
The rules are very clear and very easy to understand. It would be better though if the @nrl published a list of what players they apply them to and what ones don't have to follow them. #nrl #NoRealLeadership
- Chris Martin (@Chris_Martin__) September 25, 2018
So the #NRL Judiciary decided rules don't apply.
- Muzzagain (@macgibbons) September 25, 2018
Can someone please point out where Feki 'steps off his left foot' cause the footage shows this only happened in the NRL judiciary room where a bit of spin was produced. Not much of a left foot step given he is 50 cm from the touchline when hit. #nrl
- Legends of Sport (@Legendsofsport8) September 25, 2018
Is the "tackle" by Billy Slater on Feki still a penalty? #NRL
- Jack The Eagle (@Jackthe3agle) September 25, 2018
@NRL how can you allow @billyslater too play? So next year if another player gets put on report for a shoulder charge is he going to get found not guilty? This is why the #nrl will always be behind all other codes in Australia. ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING
- Moussa Zreik (@moussa_zreik) September 25, 2018
- Global Humanist Mag (@global_humanist) September 25, 2018
The @NRL is in a dreadful state! As a fan its hard to know who is right and wrong. Honestly rapt for @billyslater to play the #NRL GF but this just going to start a poo fight. Draw a line in the sand & keep it PLEASE!!!@AndrewVossy @BuzzRothfield @PhilGould15 @travismeyn
- Dan Taitoko (@dantaitoko) September 25, 2018
Great outcome for Billy Slater but a poor decision for #nrl One rule for one player (a great one at that) and another for the rest. I won't be watching the GF as a result. Time to pull out the Tiddlywinks set. #billygate
- Tim the Yowie Man (@TimYowie) September 25, 2018
Not all fans were upset by the decision.
- Alex Gazzola (@AlexGazza25) September 25, 2018
- Michael Cox (@KemblaCoxy) September 25, 2018
Ok so #billyslater is cleared to play, I'll reluctantly cop that decision. But attempting to deflect culpability by accusing Feki of raising his elbow... to me that's almost as cheap a shot on Feki as the tackle in question could have been. #NRL
- One Wry Eye (@onewryeye) September 25, 2018
- Ralphy_Rollback (@RalphyRollback) September 25, 2018