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Roland Laaisi Bala (27), who has represented Papua New Guinea twice since making his debut in 2016, appeared in the Dunedin District Court yesterday after pleading guilty to indecent assault.
Judge Kevin Phillips discharged the defendant without conviction, which will avert his deportation before undergoing career-saving surgery at a local clinic for a "catastrophic" knee injury.
The versatile defender came to Dunedin last year to play for Southern United, though an injury-plagued season meant he played only a handful of games.
The court heard the incident on February 4 was sparked by Bala’s release by the club and a subsequent argument with his partner over the phone.
He went into town for dinner, defence counsel Andrew Dawson said, and continued drinking into the night in inner-city bars alone.
There Bala approached a woman who was in town celebrating with her partner.
His verbal advances were swiftly rebuffed and the woman turned away when the defendant continued talking to her.
Bala put his hand on the woman’s thigh and left it there for 30 seconds.
He then slid it further up her leg towards her groin, stopping short of her genitalia, Judge Kevin Phillips said.Bala told her "abuse is a way of life".
When police later found him in the Octagon, he said he was ashamed of his actions, but the victim was left unconvinced.
"He was looking at me, watching my reaction. He looked like he didn’t care," she wrote in a statement.
"The act was done with confidence, overtly and he took satisfaction."
Police and the victim opposed a discharge without conviction, saying the offending was "demeaning".
Mr Dawson said his client was so drunk he could not remember the incident, but Judge Phillips said that did not accord with the victim’s view.
She said she could understand him and he did not seem intoxicated.
Bala was set to have surgery for damage to his knee ligaments at the Marinoto Clinic, and it would be a year before he would know if his sporting career could continue, Mr Dawson said.
The judge deemed it unlikely he would ever play representative football again.
But he noted Bala’s career would be definitively condemned to the scrap heap without the surgery.
If he was convicted, he would be immediately deported, and the scheduled operation would not take place.
Judge Phillips ruled that as a consequence, that outweighed the gravity of the bar groping.
Bala told the Otago Daily Times in 2017 that playing in New Zealand was the realisation of a lifelong ambition.
"I always wanted to play here because it was always my dream to play in the national league," he said.
"So when I got told I was going to come down here it was a really big blessing for me and a dream come true."
Bala said at the time his partner, Papua New Guinea netball international Jacklyn Lahari, would remain at home while he lived in Dunedin with family.
A Southern United representative told the ODT the defendant had been axed by the team because of footballing matters and they had no previous concerns about his behaviour.
Bala’s discharge was conditional on him making a $1000 emotional-harm payment to the victim.