SYDNEY, Australia — The National Rugby League has instituted a new policy to deal with players charged with criminal offences, and St. George Illawarra forward Jack de Belin was immediately suspended under the revised guidelines.
The 27-year-old de Belin has pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman and now faces an extended period out of the competition. The new NRL season starts March 14 and de Belin’s court case has been adjourned to April 17.
The Australian Rugby League Commission, which administers the NRL, met on Thursday before announcing the changes to the game’s disciplinary policy concerning players who are accused of serious crimes.
Previously, players who pleaded not guilty to alleged offences were allowed to continue playing while the matters were dealt with in court. Under the new policy, any player who is charged with an offence that carries a prison term of 11 years or more will be automatically suspended.
NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg, who unsuccessfully tried to convince de Belin to voluntarily stand down pending his court case, also has the discretionary powers to suspend players charged with offences involving the assault of women or children.
The NRL was heavily criticized for not suspending de Belin when the charges and court testimony relating to the incident were first released.
“Whatever decision we made today would have been controversial,” ARLC chairman Peter Beattie said. “This is not about being popular, this is about doing the right thing by rugby league. This is also about sending a clear message that the game doesn’t tolerate violence.”
The policy change had been strenuously opposed by the Rugby League Players Association, which says it will prejudice the players’ right to a fair trial. It also could result in players who are found not guilty suing the NRL for damages to their career.
St. George Illawarra chairman Brian Johnston said the issue was “very polarizing and complex.”
“Above all we’re being guided by the legal system, the NRL rules and code of conduct,” Johnston said.