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Cronulla CEO Steve Rogers last night accused the NRL judiciary of using Greg Bird as a scapegoat after the Sharks five-eighth was suspended for 10 matches.
In a brief but emotive hearing lasting less than an hour at NRL headquarters, the Sharks admitted that 20-year-old Bird's kneeing the face of South Sydney winger Shane Marteene was "an act of stupidity", but they claimed he had been severely provoked.
Video footage showing Marteene mouthing off at Bird in the lead-up to the 67th minute and then appearing to knee him in the groin was accepted as evidence by judiciary chairman Greg Woods.
The three-man panel of Mark Coyne, Ian Roberts and Royce Ayliffe also heard that Bird had apologised several times this week to Marteene and his club, but his contrition held little weight with the former players.
After just five minutes of deliberation, Coyne, Roberts and Ayliffe imposed a suspension equal to a grade 11 striking charge - one of the heaviest bans handed down in the seven-year history of the NRL.
Bird was not called on to testify at the hearing and declined to comment afterwards, but Rogers said the player was "shattered" by the decision.
"He's obviously been made an example of, which is disappointing under the circumstances," Rogers said.
"We didn't come here tonight in an effort to discredit the seriousness of what has taken place, but given the case that was put forward on Greg's behalf I am a little surprised at the harshness of the penalty.
"We put some submissions forward that I thought had merit. Obviously there wasn't much consideration given to Greg's youth and Greg's record which is fairly impressive."
Bird's legal counsel, Jim Barnett, told the hearing that the former schoolboy representative's actions had been "a brain snap, a moment of madness, an act of stupidity so out of character for a young man with skills who people in the know have made [a future] captain".
Cronulla coach Stuart Raper this week admitted his side had a discipline problem, and Barnett - the club's vice-president - said that there had been a lot of niggle in the game before Bird's dismissal by referee Tony Archer.
"When Mr Marteene was running in he was saying things," Barnett said. "He delivered a knee to the groin. I'm not excusing his [Bird's] actions. He did a very silly thing. [But] a lot more senior players showed a lack of discipline."
Barnett said Bird had taken upon himself to phone Marteene on Monday, and the two players spoke yesterday at a NRL coaching clinic at Telstra Stadium.
He had also written a letter of apology to Souths.
"This is an incident he very deeply regrets," said Barnett, who suggested a suspension of four to five matches was appropriate.
NRL judiciary prosecutor Peter Kite noted that Marteene had not been injured, but he recommended Bird be banned for eight to 10 games to provide a deterrent to other players.
Woods, however, advised Coyne, Roberts and Ayliffe not to "regard this as an opportunity to put the slipper in because of other events in rugby league".
Asked afterwards if he thought the panel had ignored Woods's instructions, Rogers said: "I can't answer that. Basically we were happy with the hearing that took place, but we're extremely disappointed with the final result."
Bird had been charged with striking, but was not ascribed a grading and no explanation was given after the hearing.
After adding a 20 per cent loading for a high-tackle charge last season and deducting 25 per cent for pleading guilty, the panel announced that the offence was worth 1012 demerit points.
"Greg's shattered," Rogers said. "He has shown genuine remorse and contrition from day one. If this was something that was inherent or a regular feature in his game I could understand the harshness of his penalty but this was a brain explosion. There was a hell of a lot of frustration in the game on the weekend and Greg got caught up in that with what we class as provocation and reacted in a split second with a rash action and he has paid the ultimate price."