DRAGONS lock Jack de Belin's rugby league career hangs in the balance after his federal court action against the NRL ended in defeat on Friday.
In a case that had huge implications for the game and de Belin, Justice Melissa Perry ruled in the NRL's favour, with costs, saying the governing body had successfully "established a clear and present danger to their legitimate interests."
The 28-year-old was stood down by the NRL in February after he was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in a Wollongong apartment in December.
He pleaded not guilty but became one of the first players sanctioned under the NRL's new no-fault stand-down policy that stipulates players facing serious charges - carrying 11 years imprisonment or more - can not play until their court process has concluded.
De Belin was left gutted by the decision that sees him facing up to two years on the sidelines until the conclusion of his criminal case, a stint out of the game that could spell the end of his career.
"I am very disappointed by the decision," de Belin said in a statement
"I have been stood down from my employment as a professional rugby league player because an allegation has been made against me. I am innocent and I will continue to vigorously defend the single charge made against me.
"Professional rugby league careers are short-lived. I have worked hard to build my career and I have now been stood down at the height of it, without any certainty around the timeframe to return.
"I am told it could be well into next year. This is very difficult for me, and also my family, who I would like to sincerely thank, along with my friends, teammates and staff at the Dragons.
"Their support has been, and will continue to be, greatly appreciated as I seek to find my way forward."
It was a face-saving victory for the game, in particular ARLC chairman Peter Beattie, with the no-fault stand-down policy to remain in place with the backing of the verdict.
"This is not a time for celebration, we'd have preferred not to have been in court on this matter," Beattie said.
"What the commission did with the NRL executive was act in the best interests of the game. Our job is to protect the game which is why the no-fault rule came in.
"If Jack de Belin is found innocent by the courts then he will be welcomed back into the game. This is about protecting the game."
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg re-iterated that the policy makes no judgement on de Belin's criminal case.
"We've said from the start, we make no judgement whatsoever of anyone's guilt or innocence, this is a rule that protects the brand and reputation of the game," Greenberg said.
"We're dealing with people's livelihoods here and my first phone call today was to the chief executive of the Dragons [Brian Johnston] to ultimately ensure the player had the right support systems around him. That will be an ongoing exercise."
The policy was applauded in some quarters and criticised in others, with the Rugby League Players Association condemning the move and stating it undermines the legal presumption of innocence.
"It's a disappointing verdict not only for Jack but all our members, in fact all professional athletes in this country," RLPA CEO Ian Prendergast said.
"We've maintained our opposition to the policy throughout based on our belief that it goes outside of what we've agreed to under the collective bargaining agreement in terms of the process followed by the NRL and the penalties it effectively imposes.
"I think practically there was a solution there in terms of getting close to Jack and his representatives around him stepping away from a period of time and focusing on what was important to him in terms of the criminal process and his family.
"However, clearly there was a campaign run to introduce this policy and we felt like we should have been, not only included in that process, but given the opportunity to agree.
"We'll now go away and consider the collective issues on behalf of our members including issuing a dispute under the CBA."
De Belin will remain stood down on full pay while his sexual assault case plays out, with his next court date coming on May 29 in Wollongong.
The Dragons were awaiting the outcome of the case before seeking salary cap relief from the NRL but will now accelerate that process following Friday's verdict.