The British and Irish Lions were given a double dose of good news yesterday as the squad decamped to the Southern Alps tourist hot-spot of Queenstown for a few days’ rest and recuperation ahead of Saturday’s deciding Test against New Zealand. Firstly, they learned that the All Blacks will be without star centre Sonny Bill Williams for the Eden Park showdown, and then they discovered that Sean O’Brien, the tourists’ Irish flanker, has been given the green light to play.
The second Test in Wellington at the weekend, which the Lions won 24-21 to level the series at 1-1, turned on the 25th-minute red card given to Williams by French referee Jerome Garces following a shoulder charge into Lions wing Anthony Watson’s head. Yesterday, Williams, the Kiwis’ World Cup-winning centre and one of the biggest names in rugby, was hit with a four-week suspension when he appeared before a three-man judicial panel in Wellington.
The verdict, which was announced by the New Zealand Rugby Union, means the All Blacks are without one of their most influential players as they target a series-clinching victory in Auckland this weekend. They have called up centre Malakai Fekitoa.
After the hearing, Williams, who revealed that he has apologised to Watson, gave his reaction, which was posted in a series of tweets published on the All Blacks’ official Twitter account. The 31-year-old said he was “really disappointed, but happy with being able to get in there and say my piece”. He added: “They’ve come to the conclusion that it was reckless, it wasn’t intentional. I’ve got in contact with Anthony, and I’ve apologised to him.”
And in a final tweet, Williams added: “...but very disappointed that I was sent from the field last night and let my brothers down.”
Williams was the first All Blacks player for 50 years to be sent off in a Test match. The previous red card came in December 1967 at Murrayfield, when lock Colin Meads was sent off for appearing to aim a kick at Scotland’s fly-half David Chisholm. Williams is only the third All Black ever to be dismissed and the first in New Zealand.
Speaking ahead of the hearing, New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen said: “Look, he’s disappointed, not for himself, he accepts he has made a mistake. He is disappointed because he let the team down. One of our biggest mantras is the team comes first, and he knows he has let the team down, but we can’t go back and change it.
“People make mistakes. It’s a fluid game, a fast game and a physical game. Unfortunately, he’s made a mistake and we’ve got to move on from it.”
Following a match that was dominated by indiscipline, O’Brien was reported by match citing commissioner Scott Nowland for allegedly striking New Zealand wing Waisake Naholo with his arm and he, too, faced a hearing yesterday.
O’Brien denied he committed an offence during a lengthy three-man judicial meeting, also in Wellington, and the citing complaint was subsequently thrown out. It means, unlike Williams, the flanker is free to play in the final match of the tour on Saturday.
“Firstly, I hope Waisake is OK,” said O’Brien after the verdict was issued. “I would like to thank the panel for carefully considering the case, and I am looking forward to rejoining the whole squad to prepare for the final Test.”
Lions head coach Warren Gatland added: “We would like to thank the panel for their professional and diligent approach.
“Sean is a tough but fair player, and we are pleased that the panel dismissed the citing.”
The O’Brien news is a huge boost for the Lions as they target a victory in Auckland which would give them a first Test series triumph against New Zealand since 1971.
Uncompromising Leinster forward O’Brien impressed in the second Test win, and he is set to be a key part of Gatland’s plans at Eden Park.
Speaking ahead of yesterday’s hearing, Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree paid O’Brien a glowing compliment. “Sean had an outstanding game carrying the ball for us on Saturday,” Rowntree said.
“He’s the barometer of our energy and aggression in the game; his ball pressure, his tackling, his carrying. He’s been outstanding.”
But Rowntree has warned the whole squad that they need to cut out their indiscipline after – even with a one-man advantage – they conceded 13 penalties at the Westpac Stadium and nearly squandered the victory.
“We’ve got to sort it out, as coaches we’ve got to show the players,” he said of the Lions’ second Test indiscipline.
“We show them every day. We sit there and show them that we can’t be doing this. It’s all about what you do under fatigue in the heat of the battle.
“All we can do is keep reiterating that to the players. You’ve got to sit down and look at it in the cold light of day. We can’t lose a Test series on the back of some stupid penalties. That would be unacceptable.
“How would you live with that for the rest of your life?”