MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The credibility of Australia's National Rugby League has been called into question in the leadup to the season-ending Grand Final after Melbourne Storm fullback Billy Slater was acquitted of a shoulder charge and cleared to play in the title-decider.
Retiring Slater, one of the NRL's most decorated players, was cited for barging Cronulla's Sosaia Feki into touch in Friday's playoff in Melbourne, endangering his hopes of a fairytale swansong against the Sydney Roosters on Sunday.
Once a celebrated part of the game, shoulder charges were outlawed by the NRL in 2013 after a string of high hits raised fears for players' health amid growing concerns worldwide about the impact of repeated concussions on sportsmen and women.
In a case that drew huge scrutiny, Slater was found not guilty by the NRL's judiciary on Tuesday despite video footage that showed the 35-year-old crashing into Feki without making any apparent attempt to use his arms in the tackle.
Storm fans rejoiced but the decision was condemned by local pundits, who accused the NRL's judiciary of bowing to popular pressure and setting a dangerous precedent.
"A shoulder charge is still a shoulder charge, however many lawyers, biomechanical experts and ticket-sellers say its not," former rugby union international and newspaper columnist Peter FitzSimons tweeted.
Sydney Roosters captain Boyd Cordner was confused by the verdict but told local radio he never expected Queensland-born Slater, a hugely popular player capped 30 times for the national Kangaroos side, to be suspended for the championship match.
"I always thought he was going to play, I think everyone did to tell you the truth," Cordner told Triple M on Wednesday.
"After that I don’t know what a shoulder charge is anymore ... Although it’s good to have a legend of our game and one of the best ever to play his last game in a Grand Final, on the other hand you sit their scratching your head about what actually are the rules around that."
Storm coach Craig Bellamy, who accompanied Slater to the hearing, spoke for those who viewed missing the Grand Final as too severe a punishment for a tackle that was side-on, rather than a more dangerous head-on collision.
"With all due respect, and people will call me biased or one-eyed, to me common sense prevailed," he told the NRL website.
"That wasn't what the shoulder charge is about. I'll just leave it at that."
The decision also drew an angry response from the brother of Sunshine Coast Falcons amateur James Ackerman, who died after being hit by a shoulder charge in Queensland three years ago.
"The 'shoulder charge' door was opened back up tonight and this helpless guy was insulted," he said in a post on Facebook alongside a picture of his brother in a hospital bed.
The Slater reprieve caps a tumultuous season for the NRL, which was rocked by salary cap breaches at the Sydney-based Manly Sea Eagles that resulted in a heavy fine and a string of bans handed out to the club's officials.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)