WHO in their right mind would throw a punch at Jacob Saifiti?
That’s the question Sporting Declaration has been pondering all week, after an alleged incident last Sunday outside a Hamilton hotel that left Saifiti unconscious and with a broken leg, and has since resulted in a man being charged with reckless grievous bodily harm.
To start with, Saifiti stands 1.95 metres tall, weighs 114 kilograms and subsequently casts a rather large shadow.
But as imposing as he may appear physically, Saifiti and his twin brother Daniel are two of the nicest young blokes I have met in all my years reporting on the Newcastle Knights.
I liked them from the moment I first interviewed them, in late 2015, when both had been invited, on spec, to train with new coach Nathan Brown’s full-time squad.
They were respectful, articulate and obviously excited to unexpectedly find themselves on the verge of playing in the NRL, less than a year after both had been trialling for a start in the under-20s.
That opportunity duly presented itself in round one of the following season, and despite being thrown in at the deep end, and asked to play in a position that required them to cop a physical pounding each week, both were quick to acquit themselves and earn the respect of experienced opponents.
If there was one criticism, and here I quote a former teammate, it was that they were “too nice” and lacked the aggression that is inherent in the make-up of the code’s premier front-row forwards.
All things considered, I find it hard to imagine Jacob Saifiti causing trouble or looking for it.
In saying that, I wasn’t a witness to the incident last weekend and can only guess as to what transpired.
The fact that Knights chief executive Phil Gardner said security staff acted appropriately in removing Saifiti from a licensed premises would suggest he was the worse for wear after an afternoon and evening of festivities.
He certainly wouldn’t have been the only 22-year-old in Newcastle last Saturday to over-indulge, or to find himself involved in a situation he would later come to regret.
Football players are only human and are as entitled as anyone else to enjoy a night on the town. But the bottom line is that in this case, the timing could hardly have been worse.
The Knights had enjoyed a week of positive publicity after signing Test prop David Klemmer, a coup that raised the sense of anticipation among their long-suffering fans to fever pitch.
The last thing anyone needed was an off-field drama that brought the club into disrepute.
Even though Newcastle management have since painted Saifiti as the victim, claiming in a statement he “attempted to defuse a situation involving other innocent bystanders, which led to his assault," they nonetheless acknowledged it was not a good look.
He will almost certainly face some form of sanction, most likely a fine, at least partially because he and sibling Daniel gained attention earlier in the year after what was described at the time as an episode of “push and shove”, which apparently left one of them with a black eye.
But the controversy this latest instance has sparked, and the prospect of disciplinary action, would seem the least of Jacob’s worries.
Of greater concern is the surgery he underwent to repair his fractured leg, and the expected three-month recovery period.
After a fractured shoulder blade last season restricted him to just eight games, Jacob was well aware he needed a big off-season to press his claims for selection in the early rounds of 2019.
The days when Daniel and Jacob were automatic inclusions in Newcastle’s squad, simply because alternative options were few and far between, are over.
After the signing of Klemmer, Tim Glasby (Melbourne) and James Gavet (Warriors), competition for spots in the pack next season is likely to be fierce.
There will be experienced forwards who start 2019 in NSW Cup.
The odds are now stacked even more steeply against Jacob, who has appeared in 47 NRL games and seven Tests for Fiji.
He will be racing the clock to be fit for round one and by then could well have five or even six middle forwards ahead of him in the pecking order.
Injuries, of course, are an occupational hazard in rugby league. But in this case, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that the physical and emotional pain Jacob is suffering was avoidable.
It’s a reminder to all the Knights of the scrutiny they are under, and the possible consequences if they allow themselves to stray into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Newcastle is not a big city and rumours spread quickly.
If Knights players go out for a drink, as a group, they tend to stand out in a crowd.
It takes only one indiscretion and people jump to conclusions.
In the case of Jacob Saifiti, he has paid a high price for an error in judgement.
This week’s police investigation would indicate Jacob was not the instigator of the trouble he encountered. But somehow I suspect that will provide him with little consolation.