Billy Slater will play in the NRL grand final after the Melbourne Storm fullback was successful at the judiciary on Tuesday night.
The 318-game veteran was found not guilty of a shoulder charge following a marathon two-hour, 30-minute hearing at Rugby League Central.
Panel members Bob Lindner, Mal Cochrane and Sean Garlick deliberated for more than 50 minutes before coming to their decision.
Slater will make his final appearance as a rugby league player against the Roosters on Sunday night.
“I’d just like to thank the judiciary for a fair hearing,” he told reporters after the decision was announced.
“Now it’s important for me to focus on the game. I haven’t started my preparation for the game as of yet. That starts as of now.
“I’d also like to thank Nick, my lawyer, the club, Melbourne Storm. They’ve really helped me over the last four days to put this case together. Now it’s time to think about the grand final.”
BILLY IS FREE TO PLAY!!! 😃😃😃😃😃 pic.twitter.com/zVpyJdkWzA
— Melbourne Storm (@storm) September 25, 2018
How the marathon hearing unfolded
The hearing opened at 6pm on Tuesday night with Slater’s lawyer Nick Ghabar highlighting images of the incident with Cronulla winger Sosaia Feki in Friday night’s preliminary final.
Ghabar, the QC who had a charge against Justin Hodges overturned ahead of the 2015 grand final, argued throughout that Slater first made contact with his chest and pec rather than shoulder and took the safest option after sensing Feki’s change of direction towards him.
“The whole time my intention was to make a tackle,” said Slater, who also revealed he still had a “tenderness” in his hip from the collision.
“It happens earlier than I expected to do but I’m still attempting to wrap my right arm. Even with my left arm is trying to wrap underneath.
“I was still trying to get my body in a position to get between the ball and the try line.
“I’ve got a duty to make a tackle, the duty of care is to myself and player Feki. To ensure I don’t make a high tackle is a duty to Feki.
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“I feel the contact that was made was unavoidable once he veered back in. I think the decisions I made ensured the safest possible contact was made.”
While NRL counsel Anthony La Surdo argued that Slater had the option to tackle by properly wrapping his arms around Feki, Ghabar said Slater “did not make a conscious decision to use his shoulder”.
“This is not a traditional, if there is a type of thing, shoulder charge,” Ghabar said.
“This is not a traditional shoulder charge where players are running directly at each other and players have set themselves. You need to pay specific attention to the angles provided to you.”
Slater said his “thorough” preparation for the game included studying patterns in opposition players and their scoring opportunities, claiming Feki ran straight for the corner for each try this season.
He said they made contact earlier than expected when Feki changed his line to come inside.
Judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew cleared media and the three-man panel out of the room for a private discussion with the Slater and NRL camps just after 7.30pm.
Following the resumption, he informed the panel members that the grand final and Slater’s final game must not impact their decision.
Bellew said the panel had a number of questions to consider: whether there was forceful contact with the shoulder or upper arm and, if yes, was the contact part of an attempted tackle with both arms or hands – and if the incident was careless on Slater’s behalf.
The judiciary’s decision leaves the fitness of Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk as the last major concern for either team ahead of the grand final.