Melbourne Storm’s Billy Slater is free to play in Sunday night’s NRL grand final in Sydney after being cleared by the NRL judiciary on Tuesday evening.
The decorated fullback, who is retiring at season’s end, was cleared by the three-man panel of Sean Garlick, Bob Lindner and Mal Cochrane after more than 55 minutes of deliberations.
After the marathon hearing a relieved Slater said, “Now it’s time to think about the grand final”.
“Now it’s important for me to focus on the game,” he said.
“I haven’t started my preparation for the game as yet, so that starts as of now.”
He will now take his place in the Storm side to play Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium in what will be his final appearance.
Represented by Nick Ghabar, Slater’s legal team argued successfully in a 1hr 50min hearing that Slater did not shoulder charge Cronulla winger Sosaia Feki last Friday in the preliminary final at AAMI Park.
Ghabar argued that initial contact in the tackle was made with Slater’s pec, not his shoulder, and that Feki changed direction, leaving Slater with no alternative but to make the contact he did.
“Could anything different be done? You will find this situation was handled in the safest possible manner, maintaining a duty of care to himself, player Feki and his team,” Ghabar said.
“What else could he have done? Is he [NRL counsel Anthony La Surdo] seriously suggesting player Slater let him run over him? Or let him score?”
Much was made of the rule under which a shoulder charge is defined as “where a defender does not use, or attempt to use, his arms (including his hands) to tackle or otherwise take hold of the opposing player and the contact is forceful. It will be considered misconduct if any player affects a tackle in the manner as defined”.
Before retiring to consider their verdict, judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew reminded panel members the upcoming grand final should be completely irrelevant in their determination.
Media commentators were divided on the decision, with News Corp sports reporter Phil Rothfield saying the game got it right, while colleague Paul Kent said it set a “new normal” for the use of the shoulder charge.
“In order to eliminate a tackle in the game that we don’t want in the game for valid reasons you have to put in a penalty that is enough of a deterrent that people don’t want to do it,” Kent said.
“To suddenly put the rule in and then when we get the result we’re seeking to achieve, and then say that’s not fair, and bring down the penalty, you’re actually removing the incentive for players not to do it.”others – particularly social media – had other ideas.”
Social media, meanwhile, had a field day with the news.
Whilst we wait, how good is this image of Australia’s protected species – I was surprised to see the Grey Nurse Shark on the list and equally surprised that Cameron Smith didn’t make the cut. #BillySlater 😂 pic.twitter.com/euJPGwgQ5k
— Marshall Brentnall (@MarshBrentnall) September 25, 2018
Anyone on twitter have an opinion on the #BillySlater thing? I've been looking but have found nothing.
— Scott Dooley (@scottdools) September 25, 2018
As the NRL.com blog reported: “1. Was there forceful contact with the shoulder or upper arm? Bellew says if your answer is no, then he is not guilty.
“If you answer yes you need 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. Was Slater’s conduct careless? I remind you he is charged with a careless act, not an intentional act.”
Slater, 35, arrived at NRL headquarters in Sydney with Storm chief executive Dave Donaghy and coach Craig Bellamy an hour early for the 6pm hearing.
The decision allows Slater to leave rugby league on his terms, playing in the grand final.
In a memorable career Slater reached the pinnacle in the sport, being awarded the 2008 Golden Boot as the best player in the game.
The recipient of two Clive Churchill Medals and a Dally M Medal, he’s won two premierships in six grand finals for Storm.
In total, he has made 318 NRL appearances, scored 190 tries, provided 173 try assists, and made 262 line breaks for a 70.4 per cent win rate and an average of 171 running metres per game.
He also crossed for 27 tries in 30 Test matches for Australia, and was a key member of the all-conquering Queensland State of Origin side, scoring 12 tries in 31 games.