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Sex scandal rocks rugby league

Nick Bryant | 10:35 UK time, Friday, 15 May 2009

"If I had a gun I'd shoot them right now. I hate them, they're disgusting. I want them dead."

These anguished words belong to a New Zealand women, whose interview with the ABC current affairs programme, Four Corners, has led to the public shaming of one of rugby league's most popular figures, the former player and Channel Nine commentator, Matthew Johns. Once again, the game itself, along with the misogynist subculture attached to it, is also in the public stocks.

Matthew Johns (file photo)
The woman, who was referred to as "Clare" on the programme, told of the night in 2002 when she had sex with a number of players from the Cronulla Sharks, while others watched.

"I only remember one player definitely, it was Mattie Johns," she told the programme. "He laughed and he joked and he very loud and boisterous and thought it was hilarious and you know kept it going."

Five days after this incident at a hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand, the woman, who was 19 at the time, complained to police. As part of their inquiries, detectives interviewed 40 Cronulla Sharks players and staff, and were told that the group sex had been consensual.

No charges were brought, and the names of the players involved in the incident remained out of the press until late last week, when details from the Four Corners programme, Code of Silence, first started to appear.

So last Thursday night, Channel Nine's high-rating Footy Show started with a statement from an ashen-looking Johns.

Alluding to the incident, Johns told viewers: "For me personally, it put my family through enormous anguish and embarrassment. It has once again, and for that I can't say sorry enough."

Crucially, however, he offered no apology to "Clare", nor any acknowledgment of her anguish. As Monday's programme would reveal, she had since become suicidal.
After the normally ebullient Johns had delivered his "mea culpa", his co-host Paul "Fatty" Vautin, another hugely popular figure in the game, patted him on the back: "Alright mate, well said. Alright, let's get on with the show."

This was far from the end of it, however. After watching Monday night's programme - something which until late this week, Johns himself did not do - David Gallop, the chief executive of the National Rugby League, said "a massive question mark" hung over his future.

Condemnation also came from within Channel Nine. Tracey Grimshaw, the host of the tabloid news magazine show, A Current Affair, was excoriating.

"Even though no charges were ever laid," she told viewers, "her experience should rightly redefine the notion of consent, and whether a star-struck 19-year-old could even be deemed capable of consenting to the scenario she ultimately endured.

"Unfortunately a man we all know - and I personally like - Matthew Johns has been heavily implicated in this event, and I believe he needs to step up, face some hard questions and talk properly about it, rather than just a few uncomfortable lines delivered on The Footy Show."

Just 24 hours later, Johns did indeed face some hard questions that were put to him by Grimshaw herself on A Current Affair . That afternoon, Channel Nine had announced that he had been stepped down indefinitely, and Johns had finally watched the Four Corners programme which had brought his career to such an abrupt and embarrassing end.

"Did it distress you to see her condition?" asked Grimshaw.

"Yes it did," said Johns, who was sat alongside his wife, Trish. "I made some comments last Thursday night at The Footy Show that I wasn't aware of what she'd been through and can say now, you know, that any trauma and embarrassment that she's gone through as a result of this incident, I'm extremely sorry for and I'm extremely sorry for, to my wife and my family as well, just the embarrassment and pain it's caused them."

You can read the interview here.

The story is a complicated one. A former colleague of "Clare" has now come forward, claiming that she bragged about the group sex in its immediate aftermath. There have also been calls for the other Cronulla Sharks players and staff who were in the room to step forward and explain themselves.

Not for the first time this season, the game of rugby league has been brought into disrepute. Last month, the former Cronulla player, Greg Bird, was found guilty of glassing his American girlfriend in the face, and then telling police that his flat-mate was to blame.

Rugby league's on-field product has rarely been better - some of the recent games have showcased a breath-taking range of skills. But the cumulative effect of these off-field incidents is testing the loyalty of even its most die-hard supporters.

Last night on the Footy Show, Phil Gould, a former coach and one of the big men of the game, broke down in tears as he spoke of his worries for his mate, Matthew Johns, and his fears for the health of the code: "This to me was the sledgehammer to the back of the head that the game deserved, and that we needed.

"That, for so long, we've been sitting on panels like this and having incidents whether it was drugs, or alcohol, or abuse of women, and we all walk away and say: 'Well, that was a wake-up call, that was a wake-up call', but no-one wakes up."

PS With apologies for the plug, but if any of you happen to be in Sydney on Friday 22 May, and fancy talking US politics as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival, then this might be of interest.


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  • 1. At 12:26pm on 15 May 2009, sca69001 wrote:

    Come on Nick, why not tell the whole story to your UK readers? There is a massive split here in AUS about this. Despite most left wing and PC media figures hypercritically (or not) condemning the NRL players and believing the woman's version of events without question, close to 50% of the AUS public support the opposite view.

    Because all parties were of legal age and the NZ police found no crime had been committed, many people feel that this is a case of "Marry in haste, repent at leisure". It wouldn't be the first time someone has tried an "experiment" and later decided it was not for them. That the lady in question, "Clare" is now bitter and conflicted about the incident seems to have sucked a lot of people into drawing an equivilence between what a drunk 19 year old groupie may have found appealing at the time, and their own sober moral views of the activity. (group sex). It's still a free country and there has been no suggestion that the lady could not have said "stop" at any time she chose to.

    Despite her friend's admission that "Clare" was bragging about it in the office the next day, if she still can't get over it, I have some sympathy, but it is not the fault of the men in this circumstance. There are plently of other questionable activities that NRL players get up to, but each should be judged by it's own merits. This is not one of them. This media witch hunt has been hypercritical in the extreme.

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  • 2. At 12:33pm on 15 May 2009, newsjock wrote:

    Such behaviour is unacceptable.

    Yet such behaviour, or the yearning for it, is endemic in many people.

    This is not only a wake up call for rugby. It's a wake up call for everyone, and not just those in Australia.

    However, Mr Johns will be disgraced and discredited, and we'll all feel better - and carry on our normal tempted and contemptible lives.

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  • 3. At 1:12pm on 15 May 2009, Natters1975 wrote:

    This has been a huge story here, and I had been wondering how long it was going to take the BBC to even mention it, rather than ridiculous stories about escaped animals.

    Firstly, the first poster who thinks "50% of Australians support the opposite view" ... where on earth do you get that idea? Certainly I can say this is not the case for anyone I know or have spoken to. So 50% is nigh on impossible - a common way of trying to lend weight to one's own opinion is to state, with absolutely nothing to back it up, that [insert random made-up figure] % of people agree with said opinion.

    I think the main point being made is that, regardless of whether she objected at the time or not, it is disgusting and disrespectful behaviour. Who picks up a girl, then lets 10 of their "mates" climb in the window to watch and join in?? Who are these people that think this is acceptable behaviour?

    On the other hand, Matt Johns was certainly not the only bloke there yet he is the only one whose life is being ruined over it. Where are his "mates" from that night now? The silence is deafening.

    #2 - just want to clarify also that this was not "rugby". Rugby league is a different game from rugby union (which is what is referred to when people only use the term "rugby"), with different rules, different players, administrators etc.

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  • 4. At 1:37pm on 15 May 2009, captainmerton wrote:

    Coming from the UK and having very little interest in rugby league and thus having a completely impartial view on this i feel sorry for Matthew Johns. Given the girl consented and he essentially did nothing illegal how can it be fair that all this is out in the open and ruining his life.

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  • 5. At 3:37pm on 15 May 2009, andrian007 wrote:

    Both sides are to blame for this. We all do things today that we might regret tomorrow, but "Clare" needs to remember one thing. Everything that happened on that day was perfectly legal and so rightly very little can be done towards the boys.

    On the other hand, The players should have known better than to do something like that. This reminds me a lot of the MP's expenses fiasco that is currently happening in the UK because the same philosophy applies; "It may be legal and within the rules, but is it the right thing to do?" This is going to haunt the players for the rest of their lives and also their wives and children. Imagine what their daughters think when they know their fathers treated women like this once upon a time?

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  • 6. At 4:29pm on 15 May 2009, sca69001 wrote:

    Natters1975, Please don't confuse the opinions of your friends and your own social circle with the opinions of the public at large. Many of your friends opinions will likely align with your own, just as mine will. I did not say 50%. I said "close to 50%". Here are some links.
    The Canberra times poll has 46.6% of it respondants agreeing that channel 9 was right to sack Johns and 53.4% against.
    The daily Telegraph (Sydney tabloid) has similar numbers. 37% agree that the punishment (by the storm and channel 9) was fair enough, 62% thought it was too harsh.,22053,5039638-5001021-2,00.html

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  • 7. At 5:07pm on 15 May 2009, campbelliai wrote:

    I feel for Matty Johns, I hope that eventually this will fade in peoples memories quickly as he will be a huge loss to the game and also a huge loss to the "Footy Show".

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  • 8. At 02:04am on 16 May 2009, Natters1975 wrote:

    sca69001 - Please don't put words in my mouth; that is not what I said at all. You like to make huge leaps in "logic" don't you! For the record, you did not state anything about your alleged 50% of Australians thinking the punishment for Johns was harsh. What you wrote was that 50% of Australians take the opposite view from those believing the woman's story. Two entirely different matters!! [Aside from the fact that 50% of Telegraph readers hardly constitutes everyone's opinion.] See, it all depends on the wording of the question in such ridiculous polls. Most people's opinions have levels of intricacies that can't be best represented by "yes" or "no".

    I personally am able to differentiate between thinking it's disgraceful behaviour and something needed to be done to send the message that it's not acceptable, whilst also being of the belief that Matthew Johns should not be persecuted and made a scapegoat here. As I stated quite clearly in my original post.

    It's always best not to jump to conlusions about people and attempt to twist their opinions.

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  • 9. At 03:40am on 16 May 2009, sca69001 wrote:

    The last reply is a good example of why this issue has become so hot in Australia. So many people,I suspect many are feminists, are red hot passionate about the issue and I suspect their emotions are clouding their judgement and the media are in there stirring the pot to boot. The word mysoginist seems to be flying about. Anyone disagreeing with the feminist position seems to be copping that particular label. For the record, I didn't even know who Matthew Johns was until a few days ago! Anyway, it's a beautiful day here in Sydney so i'll bid you goodbye on this issue.

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  • 10. At 04:13am on 16 May 2009, Omegasaurus wrote:

    #8 Natters1975 - well said.

    I agree with Tracy Grimshaw on this (there's a sentence I thought I'd never write) - regardless of the fact that the victim consented to go to the hotel room and have sex with two men, there's something seriously wrong if a group of adult men don't realise that a naked teenage girl surrounded by a group of burly men she didn't invite into the room may not be entirely comfortable with that situation. There is a very clear imbalance of power there, and if (as Matthew Johns claims) he felt the need to make sure that she was ok, surely he must have known that something was wrong. People who feel safe and secure in a situation don't give out 'I may not be ok with this' vibes.

    I feel deeply sorry for the girl, who has been viciously attacked over the last week for the crime of daring to speak about her experience. I also feel sorry for Matthew Johns, as he doesn't have sole responsibility for this situation yet only one other of his 'mates' have come forward about it. One person being held responsible for the poor judgement of his friends and colleagues isn't fair.

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  • 11. At 05:50am on 16 May 2009, possumMurgatroyd wrote:

    It's nothing short of an abuse of power, same as a teacher taking advantage, or a step father. These 'men' are in a position of power and should act accordingly. They're beyond contempt.

    Sack the lot of them.

    It is a wonder that these codes manage to get sponsorship. If the sponsors would walk away the players would be brought down to size.

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  • 12. At 11:17am on 16 May 2009, The Cheese______A LOL Expert wrote:,8659,25491874-5018866,00.html

    just another angle on this one.......just a fresh faced wee girl eh??
    unwordly eh??

    give us a break.

    book deal or newspaper serialisation coming ur way, anytime soon.

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  • 13. At 2:18pm on 16 May 2009, Noelene Nicholas wrote:

    The woman was no innocent,she has been accused of bragging to her work mates about the incident,4 days later she complained to the police.It was sordid,but no crime was committed.I do get sick of the moral police,and yes I do have a 19 year old daughter,and no she would not act as this woman did,she is no innocent,but thinks a bit more of herself than that.

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  • 14. At 4:31pm on 16 May 2009, ScottishPieEater wrote:

    In English football this is called "roasting" and the roastees usually sell their stories to the NOTW. I don't hear media condemnation of football as result.

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  • 15. At 00:35am on 17 May 2009, davep01 wrote:

    I'm always puzzled that nobody ever raises the the quite blatantly homoerotic aspects of these cases, and surely it's no coincidence that this seems to be a regular occurrence in these "burly", masculine games. Maybe the male participants should just come clean and invoke freedom of sexual orientation in defence of their keenness to watch other men having sex. I'm quite happy for them to do it among themselves if that's their bag, I just object to anyone using other human beings as sexual props.

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  • 16. At 04:17am on 17 May 2009, wollemi wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 17. At 04:38am on 17 May 2009, wollemi wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 18. At 06:31am on 17 May 2009, wollemi wrote:

    OK BBC mods

    I agree with #15

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  • 19. At 08:36am on 17 May 2009, Troy_ACT wrote:

    so he gets sacked for being involved in something immoral? NOT ILLEGAL, as the police had proven. Sacked for something that he did previous to his employment? I hope all you people 'celebrating' this have never done anything that any other person could consider immoral, or else you better hope that your employer is a lot nicer then channel 9. While i dont think that the whole story is out there, i do believe that Matt shouldn't be punished RIGHT NOW AT LEAST. That said, what about the other players 'involved'?

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  • 20. At 7:36pm on 17 May 2009, D_Davidson wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 21. At 8:51pm on 17 May 2009, ulster_stew88 wrote:

    There is more to this story than meets the eye and Matty Johns has not told his full side of the story. For instance it was claimed that 2 Sharks players came in through the apartment window. but this is a fabrication or lie as the hotel manager has said getting to and then through the window is impossible.

    I think this women has went out to earn a quick payday and ABC were only to happy to oblige like the rest of the idiot media who for some unknown reason seek to tarnish rugby league at every turn.

    This story has received "cover to cover" coverage for a week now and everybody says how rugby league has bad image. The fact is that an A-league soccer player has been arrested on suspicion of paepohpilia and it has receieved only 10% of the coverage of this story. Moreover, several AFL players have been arrested in the past year and barely a word has been said against aussie rules as a sport. One incident even involved an AFL player smashing a bottle in a womens face in the exact same way as Greg Bird did, except it has got very little coverage while Bord has been hounded out of Oz.

    Lastly something that happened 7 years ago is being judged by 2009 standards, Australian rugby league has dramatically cleaned up its act in the last few years and there are only a few incidents as in every sport.

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  • 22. At 01:47am on 18 May 2009, Foraggio wrote:

    Here's my take on it, Nick. As a fellow Pom Down Under, it is amazing how this stuff escalates down here. You see it in Melbourne, too - just the footy code is a little different.

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  • 23. At 06:15am on 18 May 2009, summ3rfun wrote:

    Amazing! The fact that Matty was a married man seems to show no bearing in the above comments - his actions are indeed quite wrong!

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  • 24. At 10:30am on 18 May 2009, DT_Smitten wrote:

    This makes me feel ashamed to be Australian. How a society in which I was raised cannot see what happened here was immoral (on the NRL players parts) is VERY misguided.

    Can the people who think "Clare" "deserved it" or have used derogatory words to describe her and her behaviour think about the numerous grown men that were there. And can these people also think about whether even one of these grown men (seemingly all lacking any moral fibre) could have had enough mental fortitude to think ahead and think about how this situation might look (a 19 year-old woman in a room with several professional, HIGH PROFILE rugby league players, participating in group sex) in the weeks, months, years ahead?

    How on earth can a highly cultured society think that the blame of the incident lies entirely with a young woman? Why is it deemed wrong that she should question the moral fibre of all the men present? She has to endure having HER moral fibre questioned again and again, but heaven forbid we should question the actions of the NRL players!

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  • 25. At 12:55pm on 18 May 2009, Mick wrote:

    This is how Janet Albrechtsen might have put it. I just replaced 'Lebanese youths' with 'League players':

    The French call it tournantes or "take your turn" - the French term for the group-sex of young girls by League players

    For 20 years the French ignored the real causes of these barbaric crimes for fear of offending the sporting community. Along the way, more innocent young girls were subject to gang bangs.

    Last year John Smith, a magistrate from Bobigny, a northern Paris suburb, described tournantes: "Their technique was to pick up a young girl and once she had become the girlfriend of one of the members, he would allow his mates to make use of her."

    Now it's in Australia. Last week ten League players were found guilty by the media of the gang-bang of a young Kiwi girl. She was invited for a drink but taken to a room and gang-banged while 10 team-mates players watched.

    Sport motivated gang-sex first hit the radar screen in August last year. After the first trial, sporting leaders such as coach Wally Anonymous, said the sporting code of the team members was irrelevant and simply incited attacks on the sport.

    A year ago the barbaric French phenomenon looked vaguely relevant. Now it looks scary and prophetic. When 10 burly League players were accused of having group sex with a Kiwi girl in a hotel room, the media finally began to expose and explore the terror of tournantes.

    "It's the group effect. They can't let themselves down in front of their friends, who are urging them to commit the act," said a police commander of a northern Paris suburb.

    Group-sex of young girls is an initiation rite of passage for a small section of young male League players, said Jean-Jacques Rassial, a psychotherapist at Villetaneuse University. "Fraternal bonding now dominates. It is the law of the gang, shorn of any sexual morals," he said.

    Denmark presents a similar story. Last year, Flemming Balvig, a criminologist at Copenhagen University, confirmed the French experience of this barbaric rite of passage into manhood for some of these young men.

    The progressive Danes offer players advice about the nature of Danish culture and how Denmark's liberal sexual attitudes cannot be equated with young girls "asking for it".

    Ignoring it exacerbates it. A large group of League players involved in these gang-sex acts is still at large. The League community's refusal to acknowledge cultural issues spells disaster for more innocent young women terrorised by League players hiding behind their sporting achievements. Our tolerance of these League players simply feeds their intolerance of us. It took the French 20 years to work that out. How long will it take us?

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  • 26. At 3:03pm on 18 May 2009, ianperfect wrote:

    has anyone got this telephone number? Yours frustratedly........

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  • 27. At 00:43am on 19 May 2009, pathologicalcynic wrote:

    Matty Johns did nothing wrong apart from being a married man who "got caught". The problem is between him and his wife only. There is nothing that needs to be said about disrespecting women, shocking disgusting etc etc one should feel ashamed about being Australian. This isn't an indictment of the game of league.
    READ MY LIPS "The girl put out and the boys said thanks very much. That's what happens."
    What happens on tour stays on tour.
    I take it this "sainted virgin" got paid for her interview.

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  • 28. At 06:08am on 19 May 2009, possumMurgatroyd wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 29. At 10:38pm on 19 May 2009, Kalheru wrote:

    First of all, she was not a child when this happened. She was and still is a grown women and was and still is fully capable of making her own decisions. As repulsive as group sex or them watching might be to you, it is in no way, shape or form illegal. The fact that the girl was in the office the next day bragging about it tells me all I need to know about this.

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