IT is rare for Gary Hetherington to criticise the RFL but the Leeds Rhinos chief executive felt driven to it yesterday raising a plethora of questions about its handling of the Zak Hardaker situation.
He told of the club’s fear that the governing body has launched a “witch-hunt” towards their full-back, the England international being investigated over alleged homophobic remarks for a second time in barely three months.
Hetherington made a staunch defence of the player and, instead, called for an external investigation into the RFL’s “mysterious” involvement in the case and asked why they are pursuing him so “vigorously”.
Hardaker, 22, is under investigation over an alleged homophobic remark in last Friday’s 13-12 defeat to St Helens.
He was shown on television mouthing a comment to Saints forward Mark Flanagan, which was apparently heard by match referee Richard Silverwood, and Leeds say the RFL has employed a lip reader to aid their case.
Handed a five-game ban in June after being found guilty of homophobic abuse during Leeds’s fixture at Warrington, Hardaker could – if found guilty again – be hit with a potential eight-match suspension that might see him sidelined until 2015.
But Hetherington argues about the validity of the whole process and the RFL’s own conduct during the matter.
In a strongly-worded statement, he said: “We are concerned there appears to be a witch-hunt by the RFL towards Zak Hardaker and we are calling for an external investigation into the issues surrounding the investigation.
“We know the match commissioner was asked by the media at the post match press conference if the referee had reported any incident or comment and they were told ‘No’.
“We want to know why the referee’s report quite mysteriously now contains a reference to a possible comment.
“It seems incongruent with the RFL’s stance and the vigour that they are now pursuing this incident with that the referee would not have reported this to his superior on the night, as is the protocol in these circumstances, or taken action during the game.”
Hetherington continued: “We understand a St Helens player has been interviewed and he has stated he did not hear anything.
“There is a hint of mystery about the whole issue and the use of a lip reader has added a new dimension to on-field conduct, particularly when games are televised. We also want to better understand why the RFL are pursuing this so rigorously.
“The only person who appears to have heard anything at all is the referee and he has belatedly reported this despite not taking any action on the field or after the game with the match commissioner. We want to know the timeline and those involved in this process.
“Given no charge has been made, it’s remarkable Zak’s name was released to the Press Association by an RFL spokesman on Tuesday and this just adds to the doubt behind the whole process.
“The duty of care from the governing body to an individual under investigation is surely paramount. The RFL’s guidelines state that the burden of proof lies with the RFL and anyone under investigation is innocent until proven guilty.
“Whilst the RFL deliberate we will continue to support Zak and at the same time press the RFL for clear transparency about the whole process.”
One of the finest players in the competition, Hardaker lifted the Challenge Cup with Leeds at Wembley less than a fortnight ago, completing a clean personal sweep haul having already won two Grand Finals and the 2012 World Club Challenge.
An RFL spokesman declined to confirm whether a lip reader had been called on but Leeds said Hardaker will play at Wigan Warriors tomorrow night. Victory there could catapult them from sixth to second with one regular round remaining ahead of the play-offs.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Keinhorst is in line for a surprise return.
The centre has been on loan at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats all season but is recalled and comes straight into the 19-man squad to replace Australian Joel Moon, who starts a two game ban.
St Helens will win the League Leaders’ Shield – denying Castleford Tigers hope of success – if they avoid defeat at home to Warrintgon Wolves this evening.
Gareth Hock has had his request to leave Salford Red Devils a year early granted by owner Marwan Koukash, but only if the “right terms” are met.