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‘Fun and games, banter’: Leniu response to racial allegation beggars belief as ‘heat of the battle’ mentality harms NRL yet again

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Expert
4th March, 2024
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Some NRL players need to understand that they can’t rely on an anything goes attitude on the playing field like they’re in international waters where laws don’t apply. 

When they venture onto the arena, they’re entering a highly competitive, emotional environment but in essence it is also a workplace and part of a society that does not tolerate discrimination. 

Rugby league has a problem with an unwritten law being part of its make-up that some players, coaches and commentators think unsavoury acts can be excused by the old “it was in the heat of the battle” argument. 

What happens on the field, should stay on the field. Wrong.

And what happened in Vegas, should stay there, if Spencer Leniu is to be believed. 

When asked immediately after his debut match for the Roosters against Brisbane specifically about the allegation that he called Indigenous opponent Ezra Mam a monkey, the Samoan international put his foot in the mouth with a seemingly relaxed attitude to such a serious claim. 

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“Nothing, it’s all just fun and games on the field, that’s it. Not worried at all,” he replied on Triple M.

If nothing of the sort happened, wouldn’t you want to get on the front foot straight away and set the record straight? 

In another interview with Nine, he added: “it was just a little bit of banter on the field and whatever he wants to do with it, he can come see me afterwards. If they want to do anything, we’re staying in the same hotel.”

Seriously? A front-rower challenging a much smaller five-eighth to come and settle the score with him afterwards – not what you would call a mature approach.

Leniu then accidentally bumped into the five-eighth and some of his teammates at the hotel a few hours later and the story then gets worse for the front-rower with reports emerging that he blasted Mam for making a formal complaint to referee Adam Gee.

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That is exactly what Mam should have done.

Unfortunately, what many other Indigenous players and those of Pacific heritage, like Leniu himself, have done in the past is turn the other cheek and not call out racism because they have had no confidence in anything being done about it. 

Mam should be applauded for his actions. 

Leniu would do well to read The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina, the story of another league player of Samoan heritage who experienced the sting of racism when he tried to make his mark in the Australian premiership in the 1980s.

A ban as long as two months has been floated as punishment for Leniu if he is found guilty at a judiciary meeting likely to occur next week because the four Vegas teams are now in transit back home and do not play until the following weekend. 

One month should be the absolute minimum and if the charge is proven and Leniu continues to show no remorse, then a couple of months would not be too harsh, as long as it is accompanied by meaningful education to ensure he understands the gravity of his alleged actions. 

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Warriors winger Marcelo Montoya was banned for four matches in 2022 after he used a homophobic slur towards an opponent in a game against the Cowboys. 

After that incident, there were the usual excuses made to excuse his behaviour with teammate Josh Curran sticking up for him on social media by typing the cliched line that “it was a heat of a moment thing”.

There was even one former player who somehow remains gainfully employed as a commentator who said when microphones are allowed to listen in on the on-field hurley burley then fans can’t blow up when they hear distasteful comments like Montoya’s slur. Yes, dinosaurs still do walk this earth.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: Spencer Leniu of the Roosters rusn the ball during the round one NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Spencer Leniu in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary on Monday said he was surprised by Leniu being accused of something as deplorable as racially abusing an opponent.

“It’s going through the channels with the NRL now, so everything is being investigated. We’ll see where it leads, but I would say it’s out of character.”

You could see he was answering a question he did not necessarily want to address in his media scrum and if found guilty, Leniu needs to indeed show it was an isolated incident that is out of character by expressing genuine remorse.

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Roosters coach Trent Robinson drew the ire of retired dual international Lote Tuqiri for casting doubt over Mam’s claims in the post-game press conference when he said: “(Mam) obviously made the complaint, but that doesn’t mean it’s right … It will go through the formal process, as it should”.

Tuqiri posted on social media that “if a player says he’s been racially vilified on a footy field, it’s happened! You can mask it and say it’s in the heat of the battle, etc etc.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: Spencer Leniu (r) of the Roosters exchanges heated words with Kotoni Staggs of the Broncos during the round one NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Spencer Leniu exchanges heated words with Kotoni Staggs. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“But I don’t get how Trent Robinson sits in a post match press conference and accuses Ezra of not being right. ‘Doesn’t mean it’s right’ is some sort of gaslighting rubbish I didn’t think would come out of Trent Robinson’s mouth.

“Especially after the great way he handled Latrell (Mitchell)’s abuse from his own fans last year. I’m behind Ezra all the way calling this stuff out.”

An unfortunate aspect of ugly allegations like this one is that opinion is often divided along club lines until there’s compelling proof to the contrary. Robinson was entitled to stand up for his player but if Leniu’s is found guilty, he then needs to show their club culture is all that it’s cracked up to be by condemning such behaviour and making it clear that it won’t be tolerated. 

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NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said it was disappointing that this incident had taken the gloss off the goodwill generated by the Las Vegas double-header in front of more than 40,000 fans at Allegiant Stadium. 

He reiterated that there was no place for discrimination of any kind in the game.

The NRL has sent out some mixed messages in recent years when it comes to intolerance, as evidenced by the Manly inclusivity jersey debacle and backing down over plans to hold a pride round. 

This could be a chance to show, in a rare moment in the international spotlight, that this sport is as tough on racism as it is to play … in the heat of the battle. 

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