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Lions boost as Williams banned, O’Brien cleared

New Zealand All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams speaks to the media outside the NZRU headquarters in Wellington, on July 2, 2017 © AFP / Marty MELVILLE

Wellington, New Zealand, Jul 2 – Red-carded All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams was suspended for four weeks on Sunday, but British and Irish Lions flanker Sean O’Brien escaped a ban in a boost for the tourists as they chase a historic series victory.

Williams said he had no argument with his ban after he became the first New Zealander to be sent off in a home Test during Saturday’s series-levelling, 24-21 Lions win.

Later O’Brien, who was cited for an alleged strike on Waisake Naholo, avoided punishment when the complaint was dismissed by the judicial panel.

It was a helpful turn of events for the visitors, who retain the influential O’Brien while the All Blacks will have to do without the hulking Williams in Saturday’s third Test.

“Just finished my hearing, ended up getting four weeks. Obviously really disappointed, but happy with being able to get in there and say my piece,” Williams said after nearly three hours in front of a judicial panel.

– ‘I let my brothers down’ –

O’Brien was later cleared when the all-Australian panel said the complaint against him had been dismissed.

“Firstly, I hope Waisake is OK,” he said in a statement. “I’d like to thank the panel for carefully considering the case and I am looking forward to re-joining the whole squad to prepare for the final Test.”

Williams, the code-hopping double World Cup-winner, was red-carded 25 minutes into the Test after a shoulder charge to the head of Lions wing Anthony Watson.

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He did not contest the charge when he appeared before the judicial panel at the New Zealand Rugby offices on Sunday.

“They’ve come to the conclusion that it was reckless, that it wasn’t intentional,” Williams said.

British and Irish Lions flanker Sean O’Brien arrives with his representatives at the NZRU Headquarters for his judicial hearing in Wellington, on July 2, 2017 © AFP / Marty MELVILLE

“I’ve got in contact with Anthony and I’ve apologised to him but I’m very disappointed that I was sent from the field last night and that I let my brothers down.”

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen confirmed before the hearing that Williams would plead guilty.

“There’s a (judicial) process, we trust the process. Sonny’s paid a big price. The team’s paid a big price for him making a mistake,” Hansen said.

“He’s disappointed. Not for himself, he accepts he’s made a mistake, but he’s disappointed because he’s let the team down.”

The All Blacks have already called Otago Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa into the squad as Williams’ replacement with senior midfielder Ryan Crotty already sidelined by a hamstring injury sustained in the first Test.

O’Brien has been a standout performer for the Lions in the first two Tests and is seen as a key member of their forward pack.

“He’s the barometer of our energy and aggression in the game,” Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree said.

“His ball-pressure, his tackling, his carrying – he’s been outstanding.”

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Although the All Blacks were forced to play with 14 men for 55 minutes after Williams was sent off, the Lions did not hit the lead until three minutes from time when Owen Farrell landed the match-winning penalty.

Williams is only the third All Black ever to be sent off, following Cyril Brownlie in 1925 and Colin Meads in 1967.

The Lions will seek their first series win in New Zealand since 1971 next week at Eden Park, where the All Blacks are unbeaten in 24 years.

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