12 January 2016
by Jake Niall

Essendon CAS verdict: Bombers players to miss season 2016

Jobe Watson and Essendon teammates at a press conference in October.

Current and former Essendon players have been found guilty of doping offences and will miss the entire 2016 season after the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the World Anti-Doping Agency appeal.

In a stunning reversal of the AFL Tribunal decision that cleared the 34 current and former Essendon players last March, CAS was comfortably satisfied that the players had taken the banned substance thymosin beta-4 in 2012.

While the players were handed mandatory two-year bans from March 31, 2015, and were found to be significantly at fault, CAS indicated that most of the 34 would be suspended until November 13 this year, depending on the backdating that applies in each case.

Having served a shorter provisional suspension, Leroy Jetta, who is no longer an AFL player, comes back in February 2017. Alwyn Davey is also serving a longer suspension.

Jobe Watson and Dustin Fletcher have been banned for eight days longer than the remaining players, due to playing in the international rules series.

The players did not receive the major discount for "no significant fault, no significant negligence", which can cut a sentence drastically.

The ruling means that, barring any further legal appeals, most players will miss all of the 2016 season, in a judgment that is disastrous for both Essendon and the AFL.

The AFL, which had hoped the players would escape suspension, is set to confirm on Tuesday that Essendon will be given the opportunity to recruit "top-up" players for the period of suspension - which is for the 2016 season.

The judgment, unprecedented in AFL and Australian sporting history, will have a number of consequences, with the players almost certain to consider legal action against Essendon and possibly the AFL.

The AFL Commission is also facing an imminent decision on whether to strip Bombers skipper Jobe Watson of his 2012 Brownlow.

The players' legal representatives, the AFL and the anti-doping bodies were informed of the CAS decision early on Tuesday. It is unclear if there are legal avenues of appeal, though it is possible to take the matter to a Swiss court or Australian courts.

Barring a successful legal challenge, Port Adelaide will be without their ex-Bombers Paddy Ryder and Angus Monfries for the relevant period, while the Bulldogs will lose Stewart Crameri and St Kilda and Melbourne will be deprived of recruits Jake Carlisle and Jake Melksham respectively.

Essendon will be without Watson and many of their premier players, such as Dyson Heppell, Michael Hurley, Cale Hooker, Michael Hibberd and Brent Stanton, along with Travis Colyer, David Myers, Tom Bellchambers, Heath Hocking, Ben Howlett and Tayte Pears. Exactly half of the 34 are no longer playing AFL football.

The CAS decision, while significant and unwelcome for Essendon, the players and the competition, was not surprising to those with a knowledge of the hearing in Sydney.

WADA's case involved bringing not only doping expert Richard Young and his offsider to Australia, but expert witnesses from the US and Germany. Sources with a knowledge of the CAS hearing had observed before the verdict that the panel, headed by London QC Michael Beloff, gave strong signs that they would set the bar lower for "comfortable satisfaction" - the standard of proof in doping cases - compared with the AFL anti-doping tribunal.

Beloff had also indicated at one point that he could not see why players were entitled to a "no significant fault, no significant negligence" discount, which could cut a sentence from two years to one and might have seen the players avoid missing games altogether.

The players did not qualify for cooperation, either, which can reduce sentences by a further six months, but they will receive discounts for what is deemed to be a period they've already missed.

WADA's successful appeal of the AFL Tribunal verdict - which had found decisively against the Australian Sport Anti-Doping Authority - was led by renowned doping lawyer Young, who had been among those who prosecuted disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong and had helped devise the WADA code.