Fans outrage: Don’t let de Belin play
The NRL faces a fan backlash over the decision to allow Jack de Belin to play despite him facing a rape charge.
In a poll of 2250 fans on Phil Rothfield's Twitter account, 65 per cent said the charge was so serious de Belin should not be allowed to play, while just 35 per cent said he should play on because he had pleaded not guilty.
The fans' verdict is in stark contrast to what the game's governing bodies argue. The NSWRL said it had not made a decision on de Belin's State of Origin availability, while the NRL and the Dragons stated the lock should receive a presumption of innocence and there would be "no change to his eligibility".
As de Belin prepares to resume pre-season training in Wollongong today, a storm is also brewing in Melbourne, where all 16 chief executives will meet on Friday to discuss the off-field crisis engulfing the code.
De Belin on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to the aggravated sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in a Wollongong apartment in December.
The matter has been adjourned until April 17, but it could be up to 18 months before a verdict is delivered.
The Blues play their first game on June 5, and NSWRL chief executive Dave Trodden said the state's governing body did not have an opinion on the issue this far out.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. It's hypothetical at the moment," he said.
Blues coach Brad Fittler is known to be wary of distractions compromising his side. Last year he warned he would black-list any player whose contract negotiations threatened to upset team harmony.
The Rugby League Players Association has warned against prejudging de Belin.
"Players need to be afforded the fundamental right of being innocent unless proven guilty," RLPA boss Ian Prendergast said.
"The rights of the individuals involved need to be protected until the matters are properly tested and determined through any criminal proceedings."
While the case is continuing, the damage to the game has already been done.
Ben Parsons, founder of the Ministry of Sport, said recent controversies would be leading companies to question their investment in clubs.
"You've got to remember the way planning cycles happen for clients," Parsons said.
"They don't wake up and go 'I want to sponsor a team', it doesn't happen like that. It's at best a quarter away, at best, normally a year. All your missed opportunity, you see the problem in six to 12 months.''
PR and marketing guru Max Markson said the scandals would undoubtedly cost clubs.
"It's like Chinese water torture - drip, drip, drip, drip,'' Markson said.
"From a long-term perspective of a company, they'll think 'Do I want to get involved in the NRL? No, I'd rather get behind a sport that's clean'."