Whether that comes in the form of further suspension, a hefty fine or doing volunteer work with the intellectually disabled remains to be seen. Perhaps all three would be appropriate.
But the rethink only comes after Hadley, clutching a copy of the referees’ report, went nuclear on the AM airwaves.
“Are your eyes f—ing painted on you bunch of spastics?” Fonua-Blake allegedly said to Atkins, as per the referees’ report, as the pair crossed paths in the tunnel after the match.
This came after Atkins had sent Fonua-Blake from the field after the Sea Eagles had been controversially denied a last-minute penalty by video referee Jared Maxwell.
Hadley’s claims, which the Herald has verified with NRL sources, subsequently fired up ARL Commission Peter V’landys and chief executive Andrew Abdo to step in and take control.
Both men were fuming with the inadequate way the match review committee had dealt with the matter — and even more so when told the panel of former players had known about Fonua-Blake’s tirade in the tunnel.
First, what happened in the tunnel exposes that Fonua-Blake’s supposed apology to Atkins was insincere, along with the Sea Eagles’ lame statement later that night. They were in damage control.
Second, the two-match ban shows the match review committee can’t be trusted on serious matters of contrary conduct such as this.
Consider the evidence sitting in front of them. Fonua-Blake called Atkins a “f—ing retard” and then, after being sent off, told him to “f— off” as he left the field. Then he abused him again in the tunnel, calling him a “spastic”.
Instead of sending the matter straight to the judiciary, the match review committee hit him with the proverbial lettuce leaf of a grade-three contrary conduct charge. That’s two matches with an early plea.
What more did Fonua-Blake have to do to warrant a harsher penalty? Put one on Atkins’ chin?
The referee was said to be shaken by the incident, but he can hold his head high with how he dealt with a powderkeg situation.
Abdo is now working with Manly towards an additional penalty, but can only do so because of the incident in the tunnel.
There’s currently a clear demarcation between what happens on the field falling under the jurisdiction of the “independent” match review committee. The NRL can deal with everything else.
Frustrated, the NRL will now push for incidents concerning the abuse of match-day officials to be referred directly to the judiciary.
Has the game learned nothing in the last two years since leading referee Matt Cecchin walked out of the NRL because the scrutiny had become unbearable?
In a raw and emotional interview with the Herald, Cecchin revealed he received so many death threats via social media following the dramatic World Cup semi-final between England and Tonga that it was picked up by both New Zealand Police and the AFP.
“I need a long break,” he said at the time. “Bagging the refs … it made me feel like a leper with the squad.”
Cecchin has since returned but it was an indictment on the code that he ever left.
Criticism of referees is expected and part of rugby league’s daily news cycle. Questions were rightfully asked of the video referee decision. It was a howler.
Does that give Fonua-Blake, or Jake Trbojevic, or Manly captain Daly Cherry-Evans, the right to run at Atkins as they did on Sunday night at Brookvale Oval and blowtorch him? Does it excuse Fonua-Blake’s petulance? Calling him a “retard” and a “spastic”?
Equally as odious was him using derogatory terms about the intellectually disabled to underline his point.
The NRL is working hard to show it’s a game for all instead of simply for some.
“It’s inexcusable,” V’landys told the Herald. “As I’ve said many times, what these players have to understand is they are role models. They have a non-negotiable duty.
“A young kid would’ve watched that and gone to school and abused a kid who is disadvantaged. To me, that’s intolerable. We’re not going lightly on it. If we do, as a commission, we might as well walk away.”
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.