Melbourne prop Jordan McLean will plead not guilty to a dangerous throw charge over the tackle that left Newcastle forward Alex McKinnon with spinal damage when he appears next Wednesday at what is set to be one of the most emotive and complex judiciary hearings in NRL history.
McLean’s case was referred directly to a tribunal hearing after the NRL match review committee agonised for hours on Tuesday about how to deal with the incident.
But he was cleared to play in Saturday’s match against Canterbury in Perth after a successful submission from Storm officials on his behalf to NRL judiciary chairman Judge Paul Conlon.
Had the Storm advised that McLean intended to plead guilty, leave for him to play this weekend would have been denied as only the length of his suspension needed to be decided by the judiciary panel.
McLean’s decision to contest the charge means the hearing will now be held in two parts; first to determine whether the 22-year-old rookie is guilty of a dangerous throw, and if he is the panel will then have to consider an appropriate penalty.
The hearing is already unprecedented in that charges that were sent directly to the judiciary previously related to incidents considered worse than the highest grading in the NRL’s judiciary code, but McLean falls under a clause that says cases can also be referred ‘‘for any other reason’’.
In his case, it is because of the severity of the injury sustained by McKinnon, who is in an induced coma after emergency surgery on Tuesday, which consisted of a disc removal at his C4 and C5 vertebrae and anterior fusion, where a bone graft or metal is used to hold the vertebrae together.
It is expected that the Storm legal counsel will argue that McLean should not suffer any blame as McKinnon was held upright by Jesse and Kenny Bromwich when he joined the tackle and grabbed under the 24-year-old former St George Illawarra backrower’s left thigh in a bid to tip him over.
Some also suggested that McKinnon contributed to the tackle going wrong by tucking his chin into his chest in a bid to perform a roll – a technique players are taught to avoid landing on the top of their heads when lifted.
Test winger Brett Morris, a former teammate of McKinnon’s at St George Illawarra, pleaded during an interview on 2UE for television networks to stop replaying video of the tackle, but incidents that come before the judiciary are shown repeatedly at the hearing, ensuring an uncomfortable night for McLean and the tribunal panel next Wednesday.
As judiciary chairman, Conlon will be required to give directions and he is likely to suggest that only the tackle be shown as the panel of former players need only consider whether McLean lifted the Knights player into a dangerous position.
If a guilty verdict is returned, Conlon will need to give further directions before the panel decide on a penalty about the extent to which they should take into account the severity of the injury suffered by McKinnon, who Newcastle officials said on Tuesday had movement in his right arm.
Captain Kurt Gidley says the Newcastle Knights have dedicated the rest of the NRL season to team-mate Alex McKinnon, who remains in hospital recovering from spinal surgery.
Starting with the game against Cronulla at Hunter Stadium on Sunday, Knights players will wear McKinnon’s name and club number, 232, on the front of their jerseys for the rest of the year.
‘‘I’d like to think we play the rest of the year for him,’’ Gidley said.
‘‘He’s a champion young fellow, Alex. He’s well liked throughout the team, and he loves his footy in general – he lives and breathes his footy.
‘‘I know it will certainly be a tough time for him going forward with his rehab but he’s got the full support of all of us as players, and I’m sure everyone from Newcastle.
‘‘I think we’ve seen that this week. The club’s got plenty of emails, letters, phone calls, text messages. Even myself, I’ve had people who don’t even know Alex text me and wish him all the best, so all our thoughts and prayers are with him.’’
Senior Knights forward Willie Mason said he could not remember a tougher week in his long and decorated career.
‘‘It’s out of the ordinary for me, and I think everybody playing NRL these days,’’ Mason said.
‘‘There’s shock throughout the NRL fraternity... it’s uncommon ground for all of us.’’
- BRETT KEEBLE