By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's embattled National Rugby League (NRL) will stand down players facing serious indictable offences as part of a new policy formed in the wake of a string of off-field incidents that have tarnished the competition's brand.
St. George Illawarra forward Jack de Belin, who has pleaded not guilty to a sexual assault charge, became the first player sidelined under the new "no fault stand down" policy, the governing Australian Rugby League Commission said on Thursday.
He will remain on full pay and is able to train with the Sydney-based Dragons but will not be able to play a match while his case is before the courts.
"What we have unanimously agreed to, is agree a benchmark where there will be a 'no fault stand down' for players charged with serious criminal offences above that line," ARL Commission Chairman Peter Beattie told reporters in Sydney.
"What we are doing is setting a benchmark and standard to protect the game of rugby league. This is in a nutshell about rebuilding rugby league."
The NRL had previously given players charged with violent crimes a presumption of innocence and allowed them to continue playing in the 16-team league.
But the league was moved to act after a public outcry in the wake of a spate of unsavoury incidents during an off-season dubbed the "Summer of Shame".
De Belin, 27, was charged with aggravated sexual assault in December after an alleged incident involved a 19-year-old woman at an apartment in Wollongong, a coastal city south of Sydney.
De Belin, in a statement issued by his club on Thursday, reiterated that he was innocent and would contest the charge.
Dragons CEO Brian Johnston said the club supported the Commission’s "desire to improve the standards of player behaviour and propagate the game.
"This is a very complex and difficult issue that impacts many stakeholders ... Given the change today, we need time to digest this information and consider the implications for our club," he said.
De Belin is one of a number of players charged with alleged violent incidents in recent months.
Former Australia and Parramatta fullback Jarryd Hayne was charged with aggravated sexual assault in November, while Manly centre Dylan Walker was charged with a domestic violence-related assault in December.
Both players have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Former North Queensland Cowboys fullback Ben Barba, who played for St Helens in the English Super League last year, was banned for life earlier this month by both the NRL and Britain's Rugby Football League after a domestic violence incident at a casino in the north Queensland city of Townsville in January.
Newly-signed Brisbane Broncos player Myles Taueli was given a two-year jail sentence by a court in Gosford last week after being convicted of assaulting a man on Christmas Day and resisting arrest.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)