Michael Jennings hasn’t paid his ex-wife $500k in damages. Why does the NRL want him back?

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When the NRL rubber-stamped the return of Michael Jennings earlier this week, it would have done so in the hope the veteran centre wouldn’t bring more damaging headlines.

Yet Jennings’ chequered past continues to haunt him and the game.

The former NSW and Australian centre has served his suspension for drugs offences, a three-year ban after testing positive to prohibited substances LGD-4033 (Ligandrol) and Ibutamoren. There is another mark against his name. Jennings was ordered to pay his ex-wife Kirra Wilden nearly $500,000 in damages following a civil dispute in the NSW District Court in December 2021.

Wilden made allegations in the court that Jennings had verbally and sexually abused her during their relationship, that he would also drink and gamble heavily, and engaged in regular cocaine use.

The matter is far from over. That ruling came almost two years ago and Wilden claims she is yet to be paid a cent.

Jennings, who lost an appeal to clear his name and reduce the $490,091.05 amount Wilden is entitled to, has declared himself bankrupt.

Former Parramatta centre Michael Jennings.Credit: Getty

However, Garry Penhall, a solicitor engaged by Wilden to recoup the money she is owed, is pressing ahead with further legal action.

“Ms Wilden has not been paid the $500,000 judgement,” Penhall told this masthead. “Ms Wilden intends to make an application to annul the bankruptcy. The allegation is that it was obtained by fraud.”

It is not as if an NRL comeback will greatly improve Jennings’ financial ability to settle his debts. The former Parramatta and Panthers centre is returning to the Roosters, where he won a premiership in 2013, for a train-and-trial deal worth $1,200 a week. It is a far cry from the $600,000 a year he was earning in his pomp and a sum too small to result in payments to Wilden.

According to the appeal judgement, Jennings sold three investment properties and paid the proceeds, which exceeded $1.6 million, to another former partner with whom he has also split up.

Jennings played for the Roosters between 2013 and 2015.Credit: Brendan Esposito

“I find that the payment of money to [Jennings’ partner] (perhaps save for the money pay pursuant to the unwritten Separation Agreement) was done in order to dissipate or minimise the defendant’s assets in a transparent attempt to avoid satisfying the judgement made in favour of the plaintiff [Wilden],” the judge ruled.

Jennings’ alleged inability to pay Wilden has drawn further criticism.

“His failure to respect the terms of the judgement is an affront to Kirra and an affront to justice,” said Moya de Luca-Leonard, the solicitor on the record in the personal injury case. “That’s important for the NRL [to acknowledge].”

Asked if it was appropriate for the NRL to register Jennings as a participant given the circumstances, de Luca-Leonard said: “He should be allowed to play in a sense of paying his dues, but also there should be some sort of insistence upon him doing the right thing.

“He is on the wrong side of two judgements, [including] his appeal.”

The NRL on Monday issued a brief statement confirming that Jennings will be “provisionally registered subject to his acceptance of the specific conditions to be imposed on his registration”. This masthead sought further comment from the NRL following the latest developments and also attempted to contact Jennings and the Roosters.

From a purely footballing perspective, reactivating Jennings’ career appears a risk. The 35-year-old played the last of his 298 NRL matches on October 3, 2020 and returns to a competition that has sped up significantly during his suspension. Further, he joins a Roosters outfit that already has a surplus of backline stars given Joseph Manu, Joseph Suaalii, Dominic Young, Billy Smith and Daniel Tupou are jockeying for three-quarter positions.

Jennings won’t be the only star returning from a drugs ban. The Bulldogs have handed Bronson Xerri a lifeline, in the form of a two-year deal, after serving a four-year drugs ban. Xerri, at the age of 23, seemingly still has time to fulfil his potential.

The NRL is full of redemption stories, but whether Jennings is one of them remains to be seen.

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