For the three-man NRL judiciary, it was part Mission Impossible, part Morton’s Fork. In short, it was probably the most difficult case they’d ever have to adjudicate upon.
Just how would they put a value on a man’s spine? How could they hope to dispense justice in a case which was so unjust?
In being asked to sit in judgment on Wednesday night of Jordan McLean, the Melbourne Storm player who lifted Alex McKinnon’s legs in the air and set in train the calamitous sequence of events that resulted in the Newcastle man’s horrific spinal injuries, the panel was handed a task that Solomon would have baulked at.
There could be no happy compromise, no negotiated settlement which offered some comfort to all the affected parties. Their verdict was always going to feel manifestly inadequate, or perversely unbalanced, whatever they decided.
As McLean’s lawyer Nick Ghabar told the panel, which comprised former Test players Bob Lindner, Mal Cochrane and Chris McKenna, McKinnon had been the victim of a “terrible and tragic accident”.
“There will be no winners from tonight whatever you decide,” Ghabar said, before submitting his case for McLean’s innocence.
There will be no winners from tonight whatever you decide
And that echoed the feelings of league fans pretty much everywhere.
The 22-year-old McLean refused to watch any of the 30 or more replays of the three-man tackle gone wrong that were shown from eight different camera angles.
After hearing the evidence, the panel took less than 10 minutes to find the Storm player guilty of a dangerous throw.
After getting his guilty verdict, NRL counsel Peter Kite asked the panel to suspend McLean for between seven and 11 weeks because of the severity of McKinnon’s injury.
In the end, Lindner, the chairman, announced McLean’s penalty would be seven weeks – without providing a breakdown of what part the injury to McKinnon played in the suspension.
But they were in a terrible bind. Whatever decision they arrived at would be criticised, whatever explanation would have been picked apart; they must have understood that.
If they had decided McLean was not guilty of a dangerous throw, what message would that send to the rest of the competition, to the Newcastle rugby league community still in shock, to the mothers and children watching the game on TV last Monday night?
Yet some will say a seven-week ban is overly harsh, too, given that just about every NRL player to speak about the incident this week regarded it is a terribly unfortunate accident.
Some will say a seven-week ban is overly harsh
One of the hardest players going around, Cronulla and NSW captain Paul Gallen said McLean had not done much wrong. “As a player, and speaking to other players, we really don’t think there was a lot in the tackle,” Gallen said. “It is the most unfortunate thing I have ever seen in rugby league and, unfortunately, Jordan is stuck in the middle of it.”
Melbourne chief executive Mark Evans fronted the media following the hearing, and said he believed the seven-game suspension was over the top, hinting the club would appeal against the ban that has rubbed McLean out until round 13 against the Roosters.
“The first point we want to make is, along with everyone in rugby league, it’s really important that the future and all of our best goes to the young fellow who is still very seriously injured,” Evans said. “That can’t be obscured by anything that happens in the disciplinary process. We came here tonight with Jordan feeling that the tackle that led to the terrible accident was really no different to hundreds of tackles you see like that in the NRL every season.’’
Yet others will ask: a man’s spine, his quality of life and his future have been wrecked and the perpetrator is allowed back on the field in less than two months?
Penrith’s Travis Burns received a 12-week ban in 2012 for two offences: a chicken wing tackle and a high shot. So the judiciary tonight has ruled that McLean’s tackle is barely half as serious as Burns’ misdemeanours – how can that be?
Whatever they decided, the panel couldn’t win.
Those who watched the incident as it happened last Monday could sense straight away something was seriously wrong. The panicked look on McKinnon’s face, the cry that he couldn’t move, the hurried removal of his mouthguard, the eternity it took to load him delicately on to a stretcher, the stunned silence from the AAMI Park crowd.
Yet McLean had done what dozens of other players had done repeatedly before him.
He’d lifted McKinnon’s legs above the horizontal, while the Bromwich brothers, Kenny and Jesse, had hold of his torso and upper body. But McKinnon’s legs were not at a dramatic angle; the lift in no way resembled a spear tackle. You’d see the same technique applied 20 times in a game.
But as the weight of the Bromwich brothers drove McKinnon earthwards, the Newcastle player – arms pinned to his sides and helpless – realised he was in a dire position. In order to protect himself, he ducked and when he hit the ground, his head and neck took the full brunt of the impact, dealing terrible damage to his vertebrae.
And now he lies in a critical condition in the Alfred Hospital, out of his induced coma but facing the possibility he’ll never walk again.
We’ve read in the past week Wayne Bennett’s extraordinarily moving tribute to McKinnon – whom he calls ‘son’ – in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. About how the super coach has always had a soft spot for McKinnon because he’s so humble and respectful, how he asks the 22-year-old to help him do the shopping, how the youngster has introduced him to Boost Juice and Health Balls and young, hip clothing which Bennett feels a bit silly wearing.
“We have some lovely times shopping, me and Alex,” Bennett wrote. “All my players are important to me but we just have a special chemistry. Me in my 60s and he’s 22.
“That’s the price you pay in relationships – the greater the relationship, the greater the pain.”
Then we learned that McLean, also 22, stands 196cm and weighs 111kg and is the walking personification of a “gentle giant”. How he moved from Young in country NSW to Melbourne as a 17-year-old before finally launching his first grade career this season.
One of his biggest problems at the Storm has been a lack of aggression and the club has implored him to become meaner – but it’s not something that’s come naturally.
“He’s always been a gentle giant,” his mother Julie said. “He’s never been sin-binned or sent-off in his life. He’s so placid and it’s in his nature to be kind and accepting, and that’s probably helped him deal with this.”
He’s never been sin-binned or sent-off in his life
McLean’s under-18 coach in Young, Nick Hall, proved that Julie was not just a doting, blinkered, over-protective mum: “He is such a lovely, soft-hearted kid,” Hall said. “He doesn’t enjoy hurting people. I am not just saying that. I always thought maybe he wouldn’t make it because he didn’t have that. I can’t remember him being in a fight, I can’t remember him using his amazing size to intimidate or anything like that…”
So, as Ghabar said, there are no winners in this horrible situation. In fact, it could be argued that this nightmare has been visited upon two of the code’s most impressive young men.
And the NRL Judiciary was forced to try to sort right from wrong, deliberate from accidental and guilt from innocence.
They will probably never sit in judgment on a more difficult case.