Knights boss Phil Gardner has publicly defended key forward Mitch Barnett in the wake of racial allegations leveled against him, telling the Newcastle Herald: "It's not who he is as a person."
Barnett is free to play for the Knights in Sunday's sudden death qualifying final against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium after the NRL failed to uncover evidence during an extensive investigation to prove that he racially vilified Gold Coast forward Tyrone Peachey.
Peachey claimed that Barnett called him a "black c***" during the second half of the final round clash between the two sides five days ago, an allegation the Knights backrower has strenuously denied.
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The two players will now be referred to a conciliation process that will be monitored by the NRL.
"The NRL Integrity Unit interviewed or received statements from the players involved in the matter, players from both teams in the vicinity of the incident, match officials, club officials, and reviewed footage and audio from the broadcast and internal comms records," the NRL said in a statement.
"The NRL's investigation, conducted under the game's Anti-Vilification Code, has not been able to determine the matter and the facts remain contested by each player."
Gardner said the racial abuse allegations have hit Barnett hard with the club keeping a close eye on his welfare.
"He's really struggled with it," Gardner said.
"Everyone should understand how seriously he has taken it. The allegation of racial vilification has really affected him.
"It's not who he is. It's not who he is as a person and it's really knocked him around. It's had a huge impact on him. We are genuinely concerned with how he is coping but we are giving him as much support as we can. We have just been trying to manage the situation to help him get through it.
"He had another personal family issue he's had to deal with recently as well so it's been a really tough couple of weeks for him."
Barnett was nowhere to be seen when Knights players were put through their paces at an open recovery training session in front of several hundred pledged club members on Monday at McDonald Jones Stadium. But he did train with the rest of the squad at the club's Mayfield headquarters on Tuesday.
Knights director of football Danny Buderus has kept a close eye on Barnett since the allegation surfaced and Barnett has been bouyed by the great support of teammates including the club's indigenous players.
Knights coach Adam O'Brien admitted Barnett has been "doing it really tough" but is hopeful it won't greatly impact on his performance against Souths.
"I don't want to comment on it too much other than to say it's been really draining on Barney and he hasn't been getting much sleep," O'Brien said. "He's been doing it really tough.
"The good thing is all the boys have really got around him to support him and lift his spirits and he has had plenty of support from the club which I'm sure has really helped him as well."
Only late last year, Gardner rated Barnett a future club captain after he became the first player to win dual Danny Buderus Medals as the club's player of the year. He says nothing has changed in that regard over the past week.
"Absolutely he is," Gardner said. "Barney has real leadership qualities and nothing has changed for me in that regard."
NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said the outcome of conciliation would be closely monitored.
"It is important that every player feels supported when they make a complaint," he said.
"It is also important that where there is a dispute as to what has been said, the game has a process designed to bring the parties together to address those matters in an appropriate way."
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