RUGBY.com.au 2018 biggest stories 20-16: Mafi charged, Stannard forced into early retirement

by Staff Writer

As 2018 comes to an end, RUGBY.com.au is looking back at some of the biggest stories of the year.

From the on-field triumphs to the moments that had people talking off the rugby pitch, rugby had some major ups and downs in 2018.

We're starting with the five off-field moments that generated the most conversation among our audience this year.

20. Mafi charged after altercation with Timani

The Rebels fell just short of a maiden finals appearance in 2018 but the events following their final Super Rugby match of 2018 that attracted the most conversation.

Star no. 8 Amanaki Mafi was charged with assault and taken in by the Dunedin police after an altercation with teammate Lopeti Timani left the latter with visible injuries in the hours after their loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin.

Timani spoke to Fairfax Media after the incident, saying he feared for his life after Mafi allegedly set upon him over a swear word he used at a house party.

Both players were fined $15,000 for staying out past a team curfew, with their finals fate still up in the air until the next day, and the incident sparked a cultural review at the Rebels.

The pair have since left the Rebels - Timani signed with French club La Rochelle and Mafi has since returned to Japan, though he is ineligible for international selection until his court proceedings in New Zealand wrap up.

Mafi pleaded not guilty to assault with intent to injure when the case was heard in September and proceedings are ongoing. 

Mafi's Japanese club team, NTT Shining Arcs, lifted his initial suspension after he issued a letter of apology to his teammates over the incident.

19. Slipper suspended over positive cocaine tests


James Slipper's was a name surprisingly in the headlines in May, suspended for two positive drug tests.

Slipper was suspended for two months and fined $27,500, a maximum five per cent of his salary, over the two positive tests.

Battling injury and some significant personal challenges, including the death of his mother for whom he helped care, Slipper found himself at rock bottom.

A collarbone injury had curtailed his Super Rugby season to that point but May's suspension also put his longer-term future under a cloud.

Though he had signed a two-year extension with the Reds, Slipper's future at the club was far from guaranteed under hard line coach Brad Thorn.

Thorn said later that month that Slipper's drug use was "simply not on".


Slipper made his return to rugby in the Wallabies' pre-Bledisloe trial in August and spoke candidly about his drug use and his determination to turn things around.

“I haven't felt this happy in a long time, everything's out in the open, my communication with my own family's a lot better," he said at the time.

“It is what it is. It's probably a good time now to come out and talk and give you guys (the media) respect and own up.”

Ultimately, Slipper was picked up by the Brumbies for the 2019 season and will have a second chance in Super Rugby next year.

18.  James Stannard forced into retirement


When James Stannard helped lift the Sydney 7s trophy in January, no one could have predicted it would be one of his last triumphs in the green and gold.

Barely three months later, Stannard was rushed to hospital after being punched in the head in Sydney's East after a farewell function for departing coach Andy Friend.

The 35-year-old was almost immediately ruled out of April's Commonwealth Games but initially held out hope of a World Cup return, a tournament that was slated to be his farewell to the game before his injury.

Still suffering vertigo months later, Stannard made the call in June to retire from rugby after more than a decade in the sport, leaving a major legacy that coach Tim Walsh described as the "Chucky factor".

Briton Sam Oliver was cleared of assault after a hearing in Sydney's local court in September, with Stannard and a number of his teammates testifying during the case.

Stannard has not been lost to the game by any means, taking up a coaching role with the women's Sevens side.

17. Israel Folau courts controversy with social media


Israel Folau caused a major stir in April this year with a series of homophobic tweets and Instagram comments.

The months-long saga began with an image he posted on Instagram and Twitter in April after suffering a hamstring injury against the Brumbies.

A user commented on the post asking, "@izzyfolau, what was gods (sic) plan for gay people??".

Folau replied: "HELL...Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God."

The comments created a stir and amid the ensuing conversation, Folau posted an image suggesting he was the victim of persecution.

>The issue made waves around the rugby world, with a number of his New Zealand opponents voicing their objection to his comments, including Chiefs halfback Brad Weber and his Hurricanes counterpart TJ Perenara.

Folau, though, certainly had support from many of his teammates and the Waratahs were adamant that the comments had not divided the playing group. 

The Wallaby was brought into Rugby Australia to meet with CEO Raelene Castle and NSW Rugby CEO Andrew Hore over his social media use.

Folau first addressed the furore in a piece for PlayersVoice, a week after his meeting with Rugby AU, hoping to "provide context" to his views.

Speaking to the media for the first time almost a month later, Folau stood behind his views and said the issue wouldn't change his desire to stay in rugby, something that the Waratahs and Rugby AU also expressed an interest in.

Folau has all but signed a four-year extension to stay in rugby despite the controversy this year, a deal that would take him through to 2022.

16. Lukhan Salakaia-loto steps away from rugby


Lukhan Salakaia-Loto's (formerly Tui) story erupted post-match on the Gold Coast, but a decision by the young forward to take the final months of 2018 off were deeply personal.

News of his stepfather's sudden passing came just days before a pivotal Test match against the Pumas on the Gold Coast.

Salakaia-Loto was determined to still play, not wanting to let his teammates down despite an incredibly emotional week.

Ultimately his emotions boiled over in the wake of the Wallabies' loss to the Pumas, with Salakaia-Loto involved in an altercation with a fan who was believed to have told him to play with some heart, a comment made around some of his younger siblings.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika came to his player's defence post-match and a day later confirmed the 22-year-old would not join the team on their tour of South Africa and Argentina.

The forward ruled himself out of the Spring Tour in October, saying he needed to spend time with his family in the wake of his stepfather's passing.

Salakaia-Loto legally changed his surname later that month, to honour his father.

He has returned to training with the Reds ahead of a 2019 return to rugby.

 
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