‘Heartbroken’ Manly legend slams NRL’s de Belin law
Former rugby league superstar Brett Stewart has finally opened up about his "heartbreak'' at being kicked out of the game for sexual assault claims over which he was later cleared by a jury.
Saying he was "baffled'' by the NRL's no-fault stand-down rule in relation to the Dragons' Jack de Belin, Stewart revealed he is still haunted by his own dramas and how he was treated by the NRL a decade ago, saying: "There will always be something burning inside me.''
Breaking a 10-year silence on the issue, Stewart said he was "heartbroken" at being stood down from playing before 2009 sexual assault allegations reached court and he was ultimately found not guilty by a jury.
"It is too big of a thing in my life just to block out,'' Stewart admitted. "I could sit here and say I've blocked it out but I'd be lying. It affected me then and is probably still affecting me now.
"I don't trust many people any more where before it happened I was pretty open and talked to anyone. Now I'm a bit more cut off, a closed book.
"The hardest part was my family. I knew I was strong enough to get through it but the people it affected around you, that's the hardest bit.
"The people you don't see, your loved ones, friends and family, extended friends and family. It affects them. That's what broke my heart."
The NRL remains under scrutiny for standing down de Belin while he faces sexual assault allegations. Manly's Dylan Walker, on domestic violence charges, and Penrith's Tyrone May - for allegedly filming and disseminating sexual acts - are also subject to bans.
Stewart has questioned the NRL's new policy, where players charged with serious offences are stood down before the matter has proceeded to court.
"The last time I checked it was innocent until proven guilty," Stewart said.
The former NSW and Australian fullback, who retired in 2016, said he questioned whether the NRL was concerned about "player welfare".
"I have been there," he said. "I can't speak on anyone's behalf - or on Jack de Belin's behalf - but I can speak from what I went through.
"How the NRL thinks they can do that … this is me talking … it baffles me.
"No one really knows what has happened. My thinking would be to let the accused go through court and let them then find out whether he is guilty or not. How can you penalise him before he has been to court?
"He will be trialled twice. You'd think they would have learned a few things from my case. From the outside looking in, it doesn't seem like they have.
"I don't know what it's going to take before they put the player first.
"I know it's a serious charge but has the NRL thought about player welfare? I'm not sure."
Despite being suspended for four games before the allegations went to court, a jury found Stewart not guilty of sexual assault in 2010. After a 10-day trial, the 12-member jury took less than two hours to exonerate Stewart. But the acquittal did not heal his mental scars. "The (playing) suspension that came after I was charged, I was then found not guilty, how do I get those games back?" Stewart asked.
"I know it's the least of my worries but those four games I was suspended, they can't give you those games back. You can't take it back.
"And that's not to mention what it's done to my family. There will always be something burning inside me, for sure, but I will keep moving forward. People probably forget about it because I'm not around or they don't see me like they used to but it's part of my make-up now.
"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me or anything like that. It's part of my life but I think there a few things maybe they (NRL) could do a little bit better."
"It's still being talked about now (but) after nine years I have accepted it and it's just part of my journey," Stewart said.
Asked had his family recovered from the ordeal, Stewart said: "How do you know? How do you measure that?"
Stewart made special mention of Manly coach Des Hasler, who staunchly supported the fullback through the allegations in 2009. Hasler has now employed Stewart as a backs coach and ambassador at Manly this year.
"He supported me from day one. I will never forget that," Stewart said.
Stewart would not reveal whether or not he had been in contact with de Belin to offer his support.