NRL still have no power to stand down players
St George Illawarra are unlikely to risk naming Jack de Belin for next week's NRL season opener even if the star NSW forward is successful in overturning his suspension in court.
The NRL launched its season at Bondi Icebergs on Thursday night after a dramatic day in which an administrative bungle had left the game's powerbrokers red-faced.
In an extraordinary development, the NRL was forced to concede the controversial new "no fault" stand-down policy was not yet officially in place.
"There's no entitlement at the moment to stand him down. It's damaging to him as a professional and as an individual," Justice Steven Rares said at the hearing where de Belin's lawyers are challenging the NRL's hard-line 'no fault' stand down policy which has also been handed to Manly Sea Eagles star Dylan Walker and young Penrith playmaker Tyrone May.
The Dragons start their season next Saturday against North Queensland in Townsville, but de Belin won't find out whether he'll be eligible to play until a hearing next Thursday to determine whether an injunction on the ban can go ahead.
The NRL was last night hopeful of rubberstamping the rule in the next 48 hours, which would prevent de Belin from being considered for round one.
"This is the first step in the process and it's nothing that we hadn't expected and obviously it's before the courts so I can't say much more,'' NRL CEO Todd Greenberg said.
"It was always the decision of the commission to change the policy and to then draft the rule and that's exactly the time frame we're on and it will happen next week."
Despite his potential availability, the Dragons are reluctant to name de Belin in their 21-man squad on Tuesday.
The Daily Telegraph understands the club's concerns not only relate to de Belin's physical and mental wellbeing, but also the impact it could potentially have on his teammates, who will fly to Townsville on Thursday.
De Belin has not played in any of the Dragons' preseason trials and was last weekend given further time off last week when the team travelled to Mudgee for the Charity Shield against South Sydney.
The Dragons are also seeking clarity from the NRL as to whether they will be allowed any salary cap concession, but this can't be settled until de Belin's future is clear.
It could leave the Dragons with an estimated $900,000 in salary cap space for 2019 and 2020 if de Belin is banned.
The Dragons still have to pay de Belin under the code's new rules but can't replace him because the NRL is yet to clarify its own policy that was rushed in last week.
Melbourne and Cronulla are both looking to offload players to become salary cap compliant for 2019 but the Dragons are unable to enter any negotiations.
In court, de Belin has accused the NRL and the Australian Rugby League Commission of misleading and deceptive conduct, claiming neither had the power to bench him on February 28.
Last week, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg and ARLC chairman Peter Beattie announced de Belin as the first casualty of the new discretionary powers.
But Justice Rares said that was premature and noted that Beattie, a former politician and Queensland premier, should be used to choosing his language carefully.
"It's not as though Mr Beattie is not an experienced man with words," Justice Rares said.
"It is suggesting that this player has been stood down and he hasn't … that would be pretty damaging for anybody."
Asked to clarify, NRL barrister Alan Sullivan QC agreed the disciplinary policy will not come into force until Thursday.
"He hasn't been suspended your honour," Mr Sullivan said.
"There is nothing to stop Mr de Belin from playing rugby league from now until (then)."
The back-rower is seeking damages and wants the NRL and ARLC to issue a press release and advertise in several newspapers that the Dragons No. 13 has not been suspended and is free to play.
De Belin's barrister Martin Einfeld QC insisted a correction should also be placed on the NRL's website "so there's no doubt".
The Origin forward has pleaded not guilty to the aggravated sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in Wollongong last December.
De Belin argues public comments from the NRL and the sport's governing body suggested they had formed a view he was guilty, warranting his "immediate suspension" from the club.
His lawyers say unsubstantiated claims he had brought the game into disrepute made national headlines, causing "irreparable damage" to his reputation and financial loss.
It's a move which could leave the game's new behaviour policy in tatters as de Belin is also seeking to permanently restrain it from being introduced into either the NRL rules or Code of Conduct.
Only last Thursday the NRL unveiled its new policy to clean up the code with the immediate suspension of any player charged with an offence carrying a maximum prison term of 11 years or more.
The day before, Greenberg summoned de Belin to a meeting, allegedly demanding he "voluntarily stand down" or he would be benched, adding "the NRL competition is more important" than him, according to his statement of claim.
De Belin claims his career days are already numbered given his age and he'll suffer form loss from reduced field time if the "unreasonable" ban, which is likely to extend past his October 2020 contract, continues.
Court documents also show de Belin stands to lose sponsorship deals and Blues selection chances from the ARLC and NRL's "unconscionable conduct", which amounts to an unlawful restraint of trade.
As part of the decision, suspended players facing charges for alleged violence against women or children are still paid a salary and receive access to the club, including the opportunity to train.
But that policy is now under threat as should de Belin win the case, it would also mean Walker, charged with assaulting his fiance, and May, accused of filming and disseminating sex tapes without consent, would also be cleared to play.
St George Illawarra is also listed as an 'applicant' but a club spokesman said on Wednesday night the Dragons were no longer attached to the court action and that de Belin was pursuing the matter alone.