In Round 25 of the 2018 NRL competition, I sat high in the stands at ANZ Stadium as the Cronulla Sharks enjoyed a day out against a tired Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs team.
It would be less than 48 hours later that mayhem would erupt after the clubs private gathering at the Harbourview Hotel was staked out by photographers. The images captured would remain splashed across the front and back pages for near on two weeks and the club found itself in damage control.
It isn’t the first time one of rugby league’s most successful clubs has hit the headlines. 2002 saw the blue and white colours considerably lowered after a systematic salary cap rort was exposed. It was a season of dominance where a premiership appeared likely, as the team rolled to victory after victory before being stripped of its points and a shot at the title.
By 2004, the club was back on its feet after the embarrassment of the scandal, with another squad of players ready to contend for the greatest prize in rugby league. Contend they did and a glorious premiership was the ultimate outcome. However, the season will be remembered for off field events as much as the superb play of the team that captured its eighth premiership against the Roosters on grand final day.
In Round 25 at ANZ, those memories were brought back to life by a rather simple minded Sharks fan. Looking more like something the cat dragged in and appearing partial to the odd bong or two, the buffoon decided to let each and every Bulldog supporter within ear shot know that he believed Canterbury players are rapists.
He was, of course, referencing the events that took place in Coffs Harbour some 14 years ago. Events that until now have been kept very much in the dark. A woman accused a group of Canterbury players of sexual assault whilst the players relaxed after a pre-season trial win against the Raiders.
The media went nuts, players were criticised wrongly for their attire when asked to front up and provide statements to police and the entire club suffered from perhaps the most ridiculous example of trial by media ever seen in Australian sport.
The reality of the situation was that the woman in question had indeed been intimate with a group of players four days prior to the early hours of the Sunday morning when she claimed the assault took place. It appears she was interested in spending some further time with the players, despite their insistence that she not return to the team hotel with them.
As is the want of intoxicated people displaying poor judgement, she somehow found her way back to the resort and did have interactions with one player. Numerous witnesses corroborated that event after spotting the pair engaged in sexual acts near the resort pool.
Apparently, somewhere between that act and when the woman was last sighted sitting in the gutter in tears, she made a decision to accuse a group of players of sexual assault.
The fallout was immense, with football manager Garry Hughes the scapegoat and the cohesion of local police torn to shreds thanks to a case that never existed in the first place. Whilst all and sundry were cleared of any crime, the entire saga was appallingly handled and a group of men were denied natural justice.
Most of us probably find some of the behaviour tasteless and reprehensible but that is far different from being criminal; a label bestowed on the Dogs and one which has stuck to this day.
It has taken Johnathan Thurston to finally open the can of truth so longed for by the people involved and those wanting to know something more of the facts behind the hysteria. Hughes’ brother Graeme has long pursued police, demanding further disclosure and hoping to clear the clubs’ name.
We still await that statement from law enforcement and it is probably best not to hold our breath. As for that Sharks fan at the footy a few weeks back and many other half-witted fools who trot out the same insult; have a look at your own team and leave the innocent alone.
Many years back I was working in a Catholic school in Sydney’s north. Not long after the events of Coffs Harbour, a male student was mucking around with some girls at recess; all in good fun mind you and the kids were running, chasing and whacking each other as they roared with laughter.
It perhaps got a little over-zealous and the Deputy Principal approached the male and said, ‘Stop doing that, that’s what Bulldogs players do.’
The student came to me in tears and I approached the Deputy and told him he was a pig. Career over. Perhaps now, after all these years, he will see the ridiculousness and illegality of his comment.
And perhaps that Sharks fan might actually realise that calling a bunch of innocent rugby league players rapists; 14 years after a baseless claim, says a little more about him than it does about the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.