Whetu Barber - the man who two months ago was banned from rugby for life - has turned out in the Waikato club rugby league competition.
In April, during a premier B club match for Otorohanga, Barber punched referee Mark Ray after being red-carded. That saw Barber banished by his club and the Waikato Rugby Union, meaning he can't play rugby anywhere in New Zealand, and to be able to play anywhere overseas that's governed by the International Rugby Board he would require a clearance from New Zealand Rugby, which wouldn't be forthcoming.
But just a few weeks after the incident the former Hawke's Bay prop was back on the sports field - this time in the 13-man code with the Ngaruawahia Panthers - the club he had played for as a junior and that his dad had also represented.
Barber turned up to training of his own accord and after it took a couple of weeks to be registered due to him having a previous registration with College Old Boys, he took the field on June 7 and 14.
But that's where his playing time will end, with the Panthers subsequently being made aware of a New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL) ruling which prevents anyone playing if they have been banned from another sport. Clause 34.6 of the NZRL Constitution reads:
Unless otherwise decided by the (NZRL) Board, no Member, Club or player shall knowingly play in any match with any suspended or expelled Member, Club or player and, in the case of a player, whether suspended or expelled from playing Rugby League or suspended or expelled in relation to another sporting code.
This rule was discussed at the Waikato Rugby League board meeting on June 11, but with the Panthers not having a representative present, they weren't told of Barber's ineligibility until after the June 14 game.
The club's secretary-delegate Dave Jordan, who also plays in that reserves team, said no alarm bells rung when Barber, who in 2012 assaulted two police officers during a drunken night out during his days with Fraser-Tech, turned up at the club.
"We didn't feel we were in a position to treat him any differently," he said.
"It's been a short timeframe since his indiscretions in rugby union, but hey, he's turned up to training, he had a positive attitude, and played solid for our reserve grade side.
"He hasn't said anything that indicates he's got a poor attitude or that he's aggressive or anything like that. He hasn't done anything on the field, I don't think he's had a single penalty."
While the Panthers were happy to accommodate Barber, it's understood the local referees had some reservations about him.
Once made aware of the ruling, the Panthers were happy to comply with the legislation.
"The rule's pretty black and white, there's not a lot of wiggle room, and if it was going to apply to a situation it would apply to Whetu's situation," Jordan said. "We're reasonably resigned to the fact that Whetu won't be playing for us in the foreseeable future."
Jordan uses "foreseeable future" because he isn't ruling out contacting the NZRL to seek some clarification around what Barber could do to help the NZRL board decide to let him play.
"If there's an opportunity for him to play for us in the future through the right channels and in compliance with all the right rules and all above board, then we will seek to provide that opportunity for him," Jordan said.
The rule also doesn't stop Barber from being involved with the club in a non-playing capacity, such as coaching, and Jordan was hopeful of having him stick around.
"We don't believe in sort of throwing out our people on to the road because of something like this. So our door's open to him in terms of remaining as part of our whanau. Just because he can't play for us doesn't mean we don't see a place for him in the club. We'd never turn our back on a junior of the club who has those family connections."
*Barber is set to appear in court tomorrow on a charge of common assault.
- Waikato Times
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