South Sydney recruit Jack Wighton has received a three-match ban after being found guilty of biting Newcastle five-eighth Tyson Gamble in Canberra’s elimination-final loss.
After an 80-minute hearing on Tuesday, the judiciary panel, chaired by Geoffrey Bellew SC and comprising Penrith great Tony Puletua and former referee Paul Simpkins took 20 minutes to reach their decision.
The panel retired at 8pm to consider their sentence, with Wighton’s defence providing a character reference from Raiders legend and Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga in their push for a two-match ban.
The NRL counsel suggested a four-match ban before the panel settled on three.
The ban is shorter than that received by the last men’s player charged for biting, ex-Gold Coast second-rower Kevin Proctor in 2020, and lighter still than those handed to James Graham (12 games in 2012) and Brad Morrin (eight, 2007) for the same offence.
Both parties agreed the bite on Gamble’s arm had been on the lower end of the scale in terms of severity and posed a lower risk of injury than a bite to another area.
Wighton is South Sydney’s highest-profile signing for 2024, and the ban is a blow to their hopes of making a fast recovery from their disappointing ninth-placed finish to this season.
Wighton will notably miss the Rabbitohs’ historic match against Manly in Las Vegas to begin 2024.
Ordinarily, players could apply to count representative matches towards their ban such as Australia’s end-of-year matches.
But Wighton won’t be eligible having announced his representative retirement earlier this year.
The match review committee referred Wighton directly to the judiciary after he was placed on report just after half-time of the Knights’ 30-28 win in Newcastle on Sunday.
Gamble’s forearm was wrapped around Wighton’s chin while attempting a tackle, after which Gamble immediately claimed to referee Ashley Klein he had been bitten.
Klein told the bunker he had seen a row of bite marks on Gamble’s forearm but opted against sending Wighton from the field, instead placing him on report.
Wighton entered a not-guilty plea and appeared via video link before the judiciary, supported by Raiders football manager Matt Ford and chief executive Don Furner.
Defence counsel Nick Ghabar did not dispute contact had been made with Gamble’s forearm but Wighton claimed the tackler had applied “extreme” pressure to the back of his head and his face.
“His forearm actually fell into my mouth before I could even close it,” Wighton said.
“I’ve got no alternative, nowhere to go. It was full body weight, full pressure (on my head).
“My mouth was jammed open, not at one stage did I clench, not one little bit.”
The case of NRL counsel Patrick Knowles hinged on the suggestion there had not been any more pressure applied than in any standard NRL tackle. Wighton didn’t like the claim.
“How many games of rugby league have you played?” he retorted before being reprimanded by Bellew.
Knowles suggested that mere pressure alone would not have created such a clear indentation on Gamble’s forearm and there was an intent to bite.
Ghabar said no intent to bite could be proven, insisting the six camera angles of the incident did not show a tightening of Wighton’s facial muscles that would be consistent with a bite.
But the judiciary counsel was persuaded by Gamble’s immediate approach to Klein claiming to have been bitten, and an apparent tilting action from Wighton consistent with a bite.