The Gold Coast Suns banished drug-tainted Harley Bennell on Thursday as the AFL refused to rush a review of its “three strikes” illicit drugs policy.
Bennell was stood down after photos of him were splashed in national media allegedly taking illicit drugs in a Tasmanian hotel room before the start of the 2013 campaign.
AFL chief Gillon McLachlan conceded “room for improvement” to gain greater accountability in the league’s drug testing system.
“It probably needs to be that every strike has an action or an accountability point but that doesn’t mean it’s a zero tolerance. It’s a delicate balance,” he said.
On the field, the Suns have managed just one win from 12 starts and sit bottom of the ladder with superstar captain Gary Ablett managing just two underwhelming appearances as he battles a shoulder injury which has put doubts over his long-term future.
Off it, their initial avoidance of the cocaine scandal involving former player Karmichael Hunt and NRL neighbours the Gold Coast Titans appears to have been a case of crisis delayed rather than averted.
Last weekend’s media report suggesting Hunt had named several Suns as cocaine users in a statement to police dragged the Suns firmly back into that ongoing scandal.
Having already been forced to launch an investigation into the claims by Hunt of regular drug use within the club, the revelations surrounding Bennell couldn’t have come at a worse time.
While the 22-year-old’s supposed indiscretions have nothing to do with the ongoing cocaine scandal, it’s not a good look for a club trying to deny reports of a party culture gone wild and rifts within the playing group.
Bennell trained on Thursday but coach Rodney Eade ruled him out of Saturday’s home clash against North Melbourne.
“With it happening so close to the game, we’re obviously worried about the headspace that Harley’s in,” Eade said.
“We’re obviously worried about his welfare and, also from a club point of view and a player’s point of view, we think it’s appropriate that he doesn’t play this weekend.”
Eade said he knew when he arrived at the Suns there were on and off-field issues that needed addressing.
The former Western Bulldogs and Sydney coach doesn’t however think the issues are out of control or particularly unique to the Suns.
“When I came to the club it was eyes open, there was some words around some areas that needed to be addressed,” Eade said.
“I’ve been at seven clubs over a long period of time and I think it would be naive to think some issues haven’t occurred at those clubs in my time as well and that’s including long-standing clubs that have been around a long time.
“This is a young club. We’ve made some improvement, we’ve made some traction, some growth in leadership and certainly our culture. I’m looking forward to getting this club to where we should be.”
The Suns’ woes aren’t fazing AFL boss McLachlan, who says both Bennell and the Suns need the support of the league at this time.
“We’ll play the role we need to to support them in every area. They’ll get through this,” McLachlan said.