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Judiciary hands down Walsh verdict over ref abuse - and it's not good news for Broncos and Maroons

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27th June, 2023
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Broncos star Reece Walsh will miss Origin III after he was found guilty of contrary conduct following his foul-mouthed spray in the loss to Gold Coast at the NRL judiciary.

In a lengthy judiciary hearing on Tuesday night which lasted more than three hours, the 20-year-old fullback claimed he was not abusing Chris Butler when he was penalised in the final minutes of the 18-12 defeat after allegedly firing expletives at the referee.

He was found guilty and told to serve three matches on the sidelines. The Broncos have the bye after this Saturday’s clash with the Dolphins so he will be rubbed out of Origin III as well as Brisbane’s Round 20 clash with Canterbury.

The NRL’s submission to the hearing was that he should receive a four-match suspension while his defence lawyer, Nick Ghabar, argued unsuccessfully for one game as sufficient punishment.

The suspension of the in-form Walsh is a blow to the Maroons’ hopes of sealing a rare series whitewash in Sydney on July 12 and pits Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and AJ Brimson against one another in a battle for the coveted fullback jersey.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 25: Reece Walsh of the Broncos disputes a call by the referee during the round 17 NRL match between Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast Titans at Suncorp Stadium on June 25, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Reece Walsh. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Walsh’s predecessor Kalyn Ponga has already ruled himself out of the Origin series to focus on club duties with Newcastle.

After a hearing that lasted two hours and forty minutes, the two-man judiciary panel of Penrith great Tony Puletua and Sean Hampstead deliberated for an hour but could not reach a unanimous verdict.

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Judiciary chair Geoff Bellew SC cast a deciding vote, satisfied that on the balance of probability, Walsh had yelled “what the f*** do you mean, c***?” at Butler after he blew a penalty, not at teammate Patrick Carrigan as the defence claimed.

“I’m disappointed in the outcome but I accept the decision of the panel,” Walsh said.

“Obviously I know that I’m a role model to young kids and the community. I’m going to continue to work hard on being better in those areas that I need to get better in.”

Vision of the incident appeared to show Walsh facing towards Butler as he unloaded with all the Titans players behind his back while teammate Patrick Carrigan tried to calm him down.

“(Carrigan) came over and was saying to me slow your f—ing brain,” Walsh said during the hearing. “I just felt like at the time I was trying to help a teammate and help out and he (Carrigan) was coming at me telling me to be smart. We have that relationship where we can pull each other up on the field and speak to each other the way we do.

“I was agitated. I said ‘what the f–k do you mean, c—‘ to Patrick. When the penalty was given Patrick came at me I snapped at him. Afterwards, I was just letting the referee know I wasn’t talking to him. I said that to him because he blew another penalty. I said I was talking to Patty.

“We’re honest with each other and we can have tough conversations,” explained Walsh.

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The NRL’s counsel, Patrick Knowles SC, lashed parts of Walsh’s evidence as “demonstrably untrue” and “frankly incredulous”, especially the suggestion he had not been complaining about the obstruction penalty when he first approached Butler.

“Even if the words aren’t said to the referee, they were directed at his on-field ruling,” he added.

Titans forward David Fifita, who just happens to be Walsh’s Maroons teammate, phoned into the hearing to give evidence to say he “tried to get under his skin” with sledging just before the incident.

Knowles said Fifita and Walsh had engaged in conversations prior to the hearing in a bid to get him off the charge: “They got their story straight.”

As part of Butler’s evidence, he told Broncos captain Adam Reynolds on the walk off at half-time that Walsh was repeatedly questioning his decisions and warned him that he faced harsher penalties.

Highlights of their testimony included Carrigan holding his phone camera up to his forehead as he struggled to hear the feed’s audio and Fifita twice referring to Walsh as “Reecy Boy”.

Fifita initially said Walsh had directed his comment to the referee before backtracking when probed by Bellew. “I just get real nervous when I speak to youse,” he said. “I just get intimidated by speaking to you because I think I’m in the wrong.”

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The charge was Walsh’s fourth this year, after he incurred two in Queensland’s victory in Origin II, following a citing in round 11 for a shoulder charge.

Because the hearing went so long, the Broncos’ attendees missed their flight back to Brisbane.

The incident comes in the wake of a similar one in the UK, where Hull FC centre Josh Griffin was given a seven-game ban for calling a referee a “f—ing cheating” and referring to him as “f—ing shit”.

Griffin was binned at half-time of Hull’s Challenge Cup tie with St Helens two weeks ago, and then sent off immediately afterwards for continuing his diatribe against referee Chris Kendall.

Prior to the hearing, Broncos legend Gorden Tallis, who was famously sent off in Origin for abusing referee Bill Harrigan, said on Fox League that Walsh deserved a ban only if the referee is adamant the abuse was directed at him.

“I have a bit of history with this, calling referees names. I reckon he was frustrated and I don’t know whether it was at Carrigan just because of his eyeline (in the footage) or the referee. You can only go on the referee’s word,” he said.

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“If the referee actually says he directed it at me, we go on the referee’s word because that is final. He’s the closest one to the scene.”

Reynolds backed Walsh’s claims before he was charged on Monday.

“Show the full clip. Was talking to a player on the other team,” Reynolds commented on a Fox League social media post that referred to the incident.

Walsh posted on Instagram on Monday that he had “reached out to Chris Butler to apologise if he thought I was speaking to him”.

“Whilst I am not proud of this … I also want to let the public, and in particular young kids playing the game know that I would never swear at a referee and neither should anybody else,” he wrote in the post.

The Broncos have been working with him since he was a teenager to deal with the emotions that surface on the field. Reynolds has spoken with him previously about cooling his heels when things don’t go his way.

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