For Willie Rioli, the ends may just about justify the means.
A whole 540 days after he was whisked away from West Coast’s team hotel in Melbourne on the eve of a blockbuster semi-final against Geelong, Rioli has his belated verdict — a backdated two-year suspension for tampering with a drug sample.
It’s a significant punishment for what Sporting Integrity Australia — formally ASADA — considers a significant offence. The maximum penalty looming over Rioli was four years out of the game, which would surely have been career over.
As it stands, he could theoretically play AFL football with the West Coast Eagles again in 2021. At the end of it all, this truly is the best-case scenario for Rioli and West Coast.
But as any coach will gladly tell you, football is a process-based game. Results are important, but often it’s how you get there that counts. And how Rioli reached this point has been troubling at best, shambolic at worst.
In September 2019, when he was provisionally suspended by ASADA for the tampering breach, the scuttlebutt suggested something about substituting urine with Gatorade during a random post-training test.
The finer details were sketchy. Had Rioli poured the drink into a vial out of light-hearted frustration in full view of testers, who were obliged to take the sample as it was and report back? Or had he tried to sneak it in on the sly, presumably to cover up something more nefarious? Either way, it was bad news.
Only weeks later, ASADA reported Rioli had tested positive to cannabis on a matchday, which while not nearly as serious in the regulator’s books as a tampering charge, coloured the initial incident enough to put serious doubt on a potential football return.
Then, for a long time, nothing happened.
Rioli returned home to the Tiwi Islands, trained alone, faced the silence with silence of his own. He was visited by Eagles coach Adam Simpson, who reported back that his small forward was struggling with the uncertainty.
The uncertainty continued deep into 2020. Perhaps COVID had slowed the process down? Perhaps there was more to this case than initially met the eye? Who knows, Sporting Integrity Australia was tight-lipped, and every time an Eagles representative was quizzed, there was no news to report.
More than a year after the provisional suspension, in December 2020, Rioli got a hearing. He was represented by David Grace QC — the same barrister the Eagles trust to get key players off minor striking charges at the tribunal — and appeared via video link to plead his case.
Then for a long time nothing happened.
Silence, for what must have been the most agonising months for Rioli. At a certain point, the assurance of a career-ending four-year ban, and the ability for he and his young family to get on with his life, would have been preferable to purgatory.
The motivational Instagram posts got more pointed, and Simpson looked more pained every time Rioli’s name was mentioned.
At this point, the AFL was responsible for finding a punishment that would satisfy both Rioli and Sporting Integrity Australia enough to avoid an appeal from either side. The latter happy to make this clear with a vague statement that swiftly handballed the public pressure back to Gil McLachlan and co.
And then, relief. Two years, backdated. Rioli can play again in August. He can train with his teammates again in the middle of the year. More importantly, he can sleep tonight with a clear head.
A few weeks ago, the length of Rioli’s provisional suspension passed the length of his AFL career to that point, from debut to last pre-ban game. His has been a short career so far, but a unique one, something which has coloured this story from the outset.
First of all, there’s the name, and all it carries with it in Australian rules football. A Rioli is royalty in this game, preternaturally blessed with gifts that confound opponents and delight fans, and in his first proper season Willie became yet another Rioli to win an AFL premiership.
Then there’s his back story, and all he had to overcome to get the chance he so nearly squandered.
With Glenelg in the SANFL, Willie’s skill had never been in question, but his was not an AFL physique. Rioli had to lose upwards of 16kg to be given a chance by an AFL team, taken at pick 52 by West Coast in the 2016 draft.
He was injured for basically all of the 2017 season before debuting in round 2 of 2018. He didn’t miss a game for the rest of the season and kicked the Eagles’ crucial first goal of the grand final.
Willie was a fan-favourite, on the fast-track to becoming one of the best and most thrilling small forwards in the AFL, and a crucial cog in the premiers’ attacking arsenal.
Then for a long time nothing happened.
Today, the overwhelming emotion will be relief. It may not be this season — swinging him back in for a hypothetical finals series would be quite the gambit — but Willie Rioli will play AFL footy for the West Coast Eagles again.
It doesn’t excuse Rioli’s mistakes, and it doesn’t justify what he was put through for the last 520 days, but it at least means better days are ahead.