Just as Greenberg took the stand, Beattie subbed in for his chief executive at a corporate lunch at Bankwest Stadium. While the former politician didn’t attend court, his justifications for bringing in the new rule – and those of the NRL and ARLC – were being examined. Several observers felt that de Belin’s barrister, Martin Einfeld QC, did a reasonable job of punching holes in them.
The Net Promoter Score, an index used to measure the health of the NRL’s brand, dropped dramatically at a time when league players were charged in relation to a series of off-field incidents. However, a simple survey question – ‘‘Are you likely to recommend rugby league to your family and friends?’’ – could have seen a downward trend for reasons other than de Belin’s criminal charges.
There was also no evidence to support suggestions that participation had dropped as a result of those incidents, save for conversations Greenberg had with players from his daughter’s touch football team.
The issue of sponsors walking away was a crucial one. The affidavits of the NRL’s chief commercial officer, Andrew Abdo, claimed the game had already lost more than $10million due to player behaviour. Further, Greenberg’s affidavit stated that “hundreds of millions of dollars” of broadcast revenue could be lost if the game didn’t act to address behaviour issues.
Alternative reasons were offered as to why fans may be leaving the game: refereeing mistakes, the bunker, concussion concerns. Some of the clubs complaining about falling sponsorship, Einfeld suggested, only had themselves to blame. He pointed to “sexting” scandals, Andrew Fifita’s expletive-laden podcast appearance, Greg Inglis’ drink-driving charge and videos of players “displaying their personal paraphernalia or attributes” as among the reasons why clubs didn’t have backers banging down their doors.
“There is no evidence that a sponsor has said ‘now that you have introduced this rule that we call draconian, here is $1 million, $2million’,” Einfeld said. “There is no evidence of it. This game does not belong to the sponsors.”
Nobody handles the media better than Greenberg. However, Einfeld’s line of questioning had him on the ropes on several occasions. But just as Einfeld was about to land the telling blow, he let Greenberg off. The former Bulldogs boss appeared more self-assured during his second day on the stand, while Abdo also gave a good account of himself.
De Belin’s veteran manager, Steve Gillis, was there for the duration. The pair sat together, occasionally scribbling notes and passing them to each other whenever a point of interest arose. While de Belin never had to take the stand, Gillis was quizzed over the assertion his client would take a large financial hit if he was sidelined for an extended period. He cited the case of another client, Danny Wicks, as an example of his expertise in the area.
For most, being cross-examined was a torturous experience. Storm chairman Bart Campbell, a former New Zealand high court judge, appeared to revel in it. After probing Campbell for 20 fruitless minutes, Einfeld had had enough and excused the witness.
Even if the NRL’s justification for the contentious “rule 22A” is flawed, Justice Perry may find that the governing body is within its rights to implement it regardless. She appeared to dismiss any suggestion the NRL had acted in bad faith and the case could boil down to other legal precedents pertaining to contract law and restraint of trade.
Einfeld raised the case of former Test cricket captain Kim Hughes, who more than three decades ago won a hearing after the Western Australian Cricket Association tried to ban him from playing club cricket after his involvement in a rebel tour of South Africa. At a time when Israel Folau is taking on Rugby Australia over whether he has a future in the code after making controversial social media posts, the de Belin ruling will also resonate long after it is delivered.
All of this was being played out in front of an eclectic audience. Even Dragons great Mark Gasnier spent two of the four days watching proceedings unfold.
If the decision goes his way, de Belin could be back for the Dragons’ round-eight clash against Parramatta. If not, his coach believes his career is all but over. Meanwhile, de Belin’s co-accused in the criminal proceedings, Callan Sinclair, continues to run out for Shellharbour in the group seven competition.
Appearing for the Australian Rugby League Commission, Alan Sullivan QC, described the de Belin charges as “the straw that broke the camel’s back about the timing for the need for action”. If the NRL loses this case, the same could be said of Beattie. While his board is said to have been “unanimous” in its decision to back the new rule, the buck will almost certainly stop with its chairman. De Belin’s career isn’t the only one on the line.
There was a feeling that Team de Belin had been in front for most of the proceedings.
“Our case is very simple,” Einfeld said. “We accept the player was charged, there is a restraint of trade, there is an interference with the contract, there was undoubtedly misleading conduct.”
Sullivan appeared to claw back ground in his closing submissions. It was the first opportunity for the league’s former judiciary chairman to hold court and he attempted to turn the argument about natural justice on its head. He said de Belin’s wish to be heard by the NRL could impact on the “rights and personal interests of the complainant” in his criminal case.
Meanwhile, Einfeld – who exclaimed on several occasions “Are you serious!” when he didn’t elicit the responses he was seeking from Greenberg – said some fans may tune into the football in spite of its off-field scandals.
‘‘I dare say [tennis champion] John McEnroe was famous for causing disruption,” he offered.
Sullivan and Einfeld were utterly exhausted when they exited the courtroom for the final time at 5pm on Thursday. Given they are among the top barristers in Sydney – they reportedly earn in the region of $10,000 a day – and pushed themselves to prepare and present complex cases at short notice, they have shifted the theatre that is rugby league into yet another new venue.
Now all of the available evidence has been heard and Justice Perry, by her own admission not a big fan of the Greatest Game of All, is poised to make a ruling that will determine its future.
Sullivan and Einfeld were utterly exhausted when they exited the courtroom for the final time at 5pm on Thursday. Given they are among the top barristers in Sydney – they don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day – both earned their keep in preparing and presenting complex cases at short notice, shifting the theatre that is rugby league into yet another new venue.
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.