Hannibal Lecter mask cannot break silence of the damned
James Graham arrives at his judiciary hearing on Thursday night. Photo: Wolter Peeters
As James Graham was escorted into last night's judiciary hearing in Sydney, he was confronted by a man from Leeds clad in a Hannibal Lecter mask. Osma Bingilly, as he identified himself, accused the Canterbury forward of letting down his country with ''thuggish'' on-field actions and chose Sir Anthony Hopkins' terrifying cannibal from The Silence of the Lambs to drive home his point. It was a slightly amusing, albeit bizarre, start to a long, unusual evening at the NRL judiciary, although Graham wasn't laughing.
In the end, ''Hannibal'' got his man. Graham, 27, was found guilty of biting Billy Slater's ear during last Sunday's grand final and was suspended for 12 matches.
The Bulldogs had entered a plea of not guilty on Graham's behalf, despite what appeared to be compelling evidence against him in the form of video footage, Slater's complaint and photographs of a laceration on the Melbourne star's ear. The club's gamble, forfeiting any prospect of leniency, backfired spectacularly.
Drama ... a man waits for James Graham in a Hannibal Lecter mask. Photo: Getty Images
There had been a general sense of bewilderment at the announcement on Wednesday afternoon that Canterbury would contest the charge. It turned out there was nothing orthodox about this whole episode.
A fair chunk of last night's hearing, in fact, took those present at Rugby League Central on a virtual visit to the dentist with Graham. The tour inside the Englishman's mouth - courtesy of a report from his dentist - detailed, among other things, that he has a number of chipped and broken teeth and sharp edges to his front teeth, which his barrister, Nick Ghabar, argued could have inadvertently cut Slater's ear. That report also revealed, rather inconsequentially, that Graham has dentophobia, while at one stage in proceedings he was asked to remove a dental plate from his lower teeth to illustrate his missing teeth to the three-man tribunal panel.
Graham, seated between Ghabar and Bulldogs coach Des Hasler, was in the main unanimated, aside from an exchange with NRL counsel Peter Kite, who suggested to him footage of his open mouth in close proximity to Slater's left ear was a prelude to a bite. ''Last time I took a bite out of something I did it with my mouth closed, not open,'' Graham replied smartly, the neat line his only bright spot for the night.
To his left, Hasler played the part of Ghabar's associate, scribbling notes on a piece of paper, shifting in his seat, and occasionally relaying information from Canterbury's chief executive, Todd Greenberg, and Graham's lawyer.
Graham was adamant of his innocence and for a time it seemed the case mounted in his defence was nowhere near as wild and speculative as had been predicted. Ghabar's argument that there were other plausible reasons for the cut to Slater's ear - among them a stoush the Storm fullback had with Canterbury's David Stagg seconds earlier - did not seem entirely unconvincing, and there was uncertainty as Mal Cochrane, Royce Ayliffe and Michael Buettner deliberated for 10 minutes.
That was soon blown away by their finding, and then the scale of the punishment. Graham's team, on learning the guilty verdict, asked for a suspension of three weeks. Cochrane, Ayliffe and Buettner had other ideas and Cochrane's uttering of the sentence - 1200 demerit points - left the small judiciary room on the ground floor of the ARL Commission headquarters in stunned silence.
Canterbury will argue the punishment does not fit the crime - in fact, that there was no crime at all. It is likely that many more will agree the panel got it just about right.
There will be sympathy for Graham's fear of dentists but it will take longer for a moment of high grand-final controversy to be forgotten.