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Judiciary recap: Kaufusi, Hughes banned; Baker cleared

Dolphins forward Felise Kaufusi and Storm playmaker Jahrome Hughes were unsuccessful at the NRL Judiciary on Tuesday night while Roosters prop Fletcher Baker was cleared over high contact on Campbell Graham.

In a total four-hour marathon of judiciary hearings, Kaufusi was found guilty and failed in seeking a downgrade for a Grade 2 Dangerous Contact charge on Newcastle's Jackson Hastings. 

An emotional Kaufusi, who denied his reputation in the game may have played a part in the decision, will miss four matches, including Friday night's historic clash against the Broncos given it was his third and subsequent offence. 

"I thought we had good grounds to fight the downgrade, but I guess the panel didn't see it that way.” Kaufusi said after the hearing.

"I’m pretty disappointed with the verdict. It’ll take some time for this to sink in."

Judiciary chairman, Justice Geoff Bellew, gave a summation of reasons why Kaufusi's Grade 2 charge was upheld by the panel.

  • The decision of the Panel was unanimous and did not require a casting vote from the Chairman pursuant to Rule 89.
  • The Panel was satisfied that player Kaufusi had a clear view of player Hastings, at a time when all of the indications were that player Hastings was going to pass the ball. It was in those circumstances that the force was applied to player Hastings which, in the opinion of the Panel, was substantial.
  • The Panel took the view that in that respect, the force was substantially greater than that applied by player Sua’ali’ in the comparable incident.In the Panel’s view those circumstances, in turn, gave rise to a substantial risk of injury to player Hastings. 
  • Whilst the Panel accepted that player Kaufusi did make some attempt to pull out, that attempt was made after the initial contact had been made.
  • The Panel also took the view that the vulnerability of player Hastings was high, and higher than that of player Nicoll-Klokstad in the comparable incident. 
  • The Panel was particularly mindful of the fact that someone in player Hastings’ position is entitled to relax his body once the ball has been passed.
  • That, in the Panel’s view, gives rise to a particular necessity to protect such players from the risk of injury.
  • For all of these reasons, the Panel was satisfied that the Grading of 2 should remain.

Baker was next to fight for his tackle on Graham with Roosters football manager Chris James successfully arguing for the young prop that his tackle was not a careless incident. He was cleared and would not be fined in a hearing that lasted just over an hour.

Hughes was the final player to front the Judiciary for a Dangerous Contact charge with the 70-minute hearing finding the Storm playmaker unsuccessful in his fight to have the charge downgraded.

Hughes pleaded guilty but sought a downgrade with Bellew indicating the decision was unanimous to keep the tackle as a Grade 2.

  • The decision of the Panel was unanimous and did not require a casting vote from the Chairman pursuant to Rule 89.
  • The only issue that the Panel was required to consider was that of the appropriate grading. 
  • In coming to the determination that the appropriate grading was 2, the Panel was not assisted by the tackle involving player Coen Hess.
  • The Panel considered that that incident had been inappropriately graded.
  • The factors which lead the Panel to conclude that the appropriate grade was 2 were: the level of force applied by the player, as evidenced by the fact that he left the ground on impact; the fact that in all of the circumstances, dangerous contact was inevitable; the moderate risk of injury; and the fact that player Boyd was in an obvious position of vulnerability, as evidenced by his uncontrolled fall following impact. 

Hughes will miss matches against the Wests Tigers and South Sydney Rabbitohs. 

Live blog - Judiciary recap

9:58pm - The Hughes decision was unanimous according to Bellew with the Hess incident that was used by the defence counsel deemed "inappropriately graded".

9:53pm - Jahrome Hughes UNSUCCESSFUL in seeking a downgrade for tackle on Titans playmaker Tanah Boyd - he will miss two matches. The Storm play Wests Tigers on Friday night, followed by South Sydney.

9:50pm - The panel have been deliberating for over 10 minutes so far...

9:35pm - Bellew is summarising both submissions with a verdict to come shortly following deliberation. Hughes will either be free to play against the Wests Tigers on Friday night or be suspended for two weeks. 

9:32pm - Knowles responds to the Hess footage: "Player Hughes had the benefit of being able to brace himself, player Boyd - as the kicker - did not. Player Hess, who completes the tackle, doesn’t lose balance and control as player Hughes does in this incident."

9:27pm - Footage is being shown of a similiar incident deemed Grade 1 involving Coen Hess on Reece Walsh during the Warriors-Cowboys clash in Round 8, 2021.

"It was well after the ball was kicked and player Hess had ample opportunity to pull out. At absolute worst he is in the same vulnerable position. My submission about this tackle is that there is considerably more force, considerably more risk of injury and was considerably late. The Hess tackle in my submission is more dangerous, more risk of injury and more force," Ghabar argues.

9:20pm - Ghabar continues with his submission: "It is not as though player Hughes has launched himself. The contact itself was relatively modest in terms of the risk of injury. Both players were bracing and there is no suggestion of any contact with the head. At the time the ball is kicked both of Hughes' feet have contact with the ground."

Hughes charged with dangerous contact

9:10pm - The Storm's defence case - led by Ghabar - wants to bring up a previous incident involving Coen Hess on Reece Walsh in 2021 but before that makes a claim that Hughes was bracing for the potential of Boyd's kick to hit him in the face.

"The contact was only minimally late... what player Hughes was doing was bracing, turning and at one stage closed his eyes. He thought the kicker was going to kick from his right foot for the right touch line so wasn’t expecting the kicker to kick across his body towards him. At this stage player Hughes braces, closes his eyes and turns away to avoid ball being kicked in his face."

9:05pm - The footage of the incident is being played with Knowles continuing to build his case for a suspension: "Hughes races from marker and knocks Boyd forcefully to the ground. No attempt by player Hughes to effect a tackle or even a charge down. It is twisting his shoulder - player Hughes made a beeline for player Boyd with no control. This is the type of conduct which must be stamped out of the game because of the risk of injury. It was obvious that there was going to be a kick on the last tackle and player Boyd shaped to kick."

8:59pm - Knowles begins his submission against Hughes: "The kicker is the most vulnerable player on the field. They are off balance and have one foot in the air. In my submission this doesn’t lie at the lower end of the spectrum because of the force and there was no ability for the kicker to defend themselves."

8:50pm - Hughes and Storm football manager Frank Ponnisi have dialled in via video link from Melbourne. Hughes is represented in the room by Nick Ghabar, who was earlier unsuccessful with Felise Kaufusi's bid for a downgrade.

8:46pm - Time to grab a quick drink and take a toilet break before the Jahrome Hughes hearing gets underway!

Hughes faced a one-match ban with an early guilty plea to a Grade 2 Dangerous Contact on opposite number Tanah Boyd but he will seek a downgrade in a bid to face Wests Tigers in Round 4. If Hughes is unsuccessful he will miss two matches.

8:41pm - Fletcher Baker found NOT GUILTY of high contact on Rabbitohs centre Campbell Graham. He has escaped any punishment and won't be fined. The panel deemed the tackle to be high but not forceful.

Fletcher Baker placed on report on Friday night.
Fletcher Baker placed on report on Friday night. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

8:28pm - Bellew has summarised both submissions with a verdict expected shortly. 

8:15pm - Bellew steps in and clarifies James' submission around their defence case. "In fairness to you and the player, you are saying not that his careless was low - because that would be an admission that he was careless - but that he was not careless at all."

James responds: "Yes. Fletcher Baker wasn’t careless, he was careful".

7:57pm - The Roosters have opted against having a legal counsel. Chris James, the club's football manager, is speaking on behalf of Baker.

"[This incident] is slightly an overreaction. This is an incident that should have been penalised on the field and it was. Simply put we don’t consider Fletcher Baker to be careless. He was careful. This was a wrapping-type tackle. He doesn’t drive with a shoulder, he doesn’t swing an arm, he doesn’t change his body height. There is front on front on contact between two men of similar height."

7:48pm - Knowles begins his submission against Baker.

"This isn’t one of those cases where the player lowers his body height. Graham hits and spins out of tackle but that is not unpredictable. Player Baker has a good view of that at all times and remains tall.

"I have to accept this is not the most serious high tackle we will see this year, but it is graded at the lowest end as a grade one careless and it is involved the risk of injury."

7:30pm - There will be a short break before the hearing of Fletcher Baker gets underway shortly. Baker has pleaded not guilty to a high tackle charge on Rabbitohs centre Campbell Graham. 

Baker risks an increase in the monetary fine if he's unsuccessful.

7:25pm - Felise Kaufusi has been found GUILTY and is unsuccessful in his bid for a downgrade. He will now serve four matches and miss the Dolphins' clash with the Broncos on Friday night.

7.15pm - The panel continues to deliberate with a verdict hopefully not too far away!

7:00pm - Judiciary chair Justice Geoff Bellew is providing a summary of the case and instructions to the panel before all parties will exit the room and wait on a verdict.

Should the panel of Paul Simpkins and Bob Lindner not agree unanimously, Bellew will also vote as part of the deliberation.

Felise Kaufusi at the NRL Judiciary on Tuesday night.
Felise Kaufusi at the NRL Judiciary on Tuesday night. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

6:50pm - Knowles responds to Ghabar's argument that Hastings wasn't injured in the incident.

"The fact that player Hastings wasn’t injured had more to do with good luck than player Kaufusi exercising care," Knowles said.

"There was no step taken before right shoulder made contact with back of Hastings to reduce the force of contact. Anything done after that was really too late."

6:47pm - Ghabar continues with his final submission, indicating Hastings did not receive any medical attention following the incident.

"If player Hastings had held the ball what would have been wrong with the tackle?," he argues. "The risk of injury was higher in Suaalii tackle, in my submission.

"It is fair to say player Hastings would have been expecting some form of contact having seen player Kaufusi coming at him. We say both tackles are grade one for seriousness but if anything the Suaalii tackle is worse."

6:32pm - Ghabar, representing Kaufusi, argues the tackle was "only marginally late and deserves no more than a base charge", saying "player Kaufusi was slightly to the right and ahead of him so player Hastings knows he is coming towards him.

"The ball is leaving Hastings' hands but you can see that Kaufusi is already committed to make a tackle. First contact is Kaufusi’s left arm on the No.7

"In the Suaalii tackle, there is no commitment to make the tackle until after Nicoll-Klokstad has released the ball. His contact is not only careless, it is grossly careless."

Ghabar adds Nicoll-Klokstad was "in a more vulnerable position than Hastings when Suaalii plants his left foot and drives his right shoulder into the back of the Warriors fullback, causing whiplash. It is quite severe to his head and neck."

6:23pm - Knowles begins his submission: "Player Hastings is looking, as ball players often do, for an offload to a player on outside. Kaufusi is about one metre away and Hastings has turned his body so that his side is vulnerable should contact occur. Player Kaufusi does not make any attempt to slow down or avoid contact. He goes through with the tackle with full momentum at a time when Hastings is particularly vulnerable."

Speaking on the Suaalii tackle in comparison, Knowles adds: "I just ask you to recognise two hits which are different - the tackler Suaalii is not rushing up at speed. If you do that you must show a duty of care. Player Hastings had no ability to protect himself. He had already passed the ball and was not involved in the play. There were no mitigating circumstances or anything that could explain how this tackle could be on the lower level of seriousness."

6:10pm - The hearing has begun with NRL legal counsel Patrick Knowles showing footage from seven different camera angles of Kaufusi’s hit on Hastings after he passed the ball to Bradman Best.

The panel was then shown footage by Ghabar of a tackle by Sydney Roosters star Joseph Suaalii on Warriors fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in Round 2.

6:00pm - Felise Kaufusi has arrived at Rugby League Central alongside Dolphins assistant coach Kristian Woolf. He is represented by lawyer Nick Ghabar.

Paul Simpkins and Bob Lindner are the panel members alongside judiciary chairman Justice Geoff Bellew.

Kaufusi has pleaded guilty to Dangerous Contact on Newcastle’s Jackson Hastings but is seeking a downgrade from Grade 2 to 1 in a bid to be part of the club's historic clash against the Broncos on Friday night.

A downgrade would leave Kaufusi with a fine, while if the challenge is unsuccessful, his suspension will rise from three to four weeks as it is his third offence.

5:30pm - The hearing for Felise Kaufusi will get underway in 30 minutes, followed by Fletcher Baker and Jahrome Hughes.

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