WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Jul 2 – Disgraced All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams was accused of costing the All Blacks the second Test against the British and Irish Lions as New Zealanders weighed up the impact of his red card.
In the country’s newspapers and on talkback radio there was a feeling that Williams’ background in the rival rugby league code was to blame.
There was also a feeling that Lions escaped lightly with only one citing and one yellow card in their come-from-behind 24-21 win in Wellington on Saturday to square the series with one match remaining.
A week ago Willliams was praised for his generosity when he gave away his shorts and socks to a young Lions fan after the All Blacks won the first Test, reminiscent of the way he gave away his winner’s medal after the 2015 World Cup final.
But his dismissal for a head-high shoulder charge in the 25th minute of the second Test turned him from hero to villain.
It was a pivotal moment in the match and although the All Blacks were able to build an 18-9 lead the impact of 14 players against 15 told late in the game as the Lions roared back in the final quarter.
“The Lions won a glorious mess, and Sonny Bill Williams created one,” wrote Chris Rattue in the Sunday Herald, adding referee Jerome Garces should be “congratulated for sending him off.
“Years of code-hopping, boxing, boxing clever by SBW has produced one of the most remarkable careers in New Zealand sport.
“But it also produced the ill-disciplined tackle, one which could have caused immense damage to Lions wing Anthony Watson and led to the red card which has made winning this Test series a very precarious proposition for the All Blacks.”
Sunday Times veteran rugby correspondent Phil Gifford linked Williams’ brain fade to his years of playing rugby league before switching to rugby union.
“In the circumstances there wasn’t really any option except a red card. Did the reflex action reflect Williams’ years in league, where the shoulder charge was legal? Probably,” Gifford said.
– ‘Stupid’ tackle –
“Does it mean he’s actually a dirty player? His record suggests otherwise, although that may not be the reaction you’ll now hear from the myriad of Williams’ haters, some of whom seem to be offended by his very existence.”
Rattue claimed the 36-Test centre did not have a genuine instinct for the union code.
“They are not imbued. He’s moved around too much. Prior to a rule change in league, SBW loved to smash opponents with shoulder charges,” Rattue said.
“His no-arms, shoulder-to-head tackle on Watson was stupid, and scarcely believable from a top professional quite frankly. It came from a place he couldn’t leave behind. It left his coaches and team mates scrambling.”
Under the heading “Williams brain snap joins All Blacks hall of shame” Fairfax Media’s Mark Geenty said it was a “completely needless” action.
Willliams is only the third All Black to be sent off following Cyril Brownlie in 1925 and Colin Meads in 1967.
Lions flanker Sean O’Brien was cited on Sunday for a swinging arm hit on Waisake Naholo and Gifford suggested prop Mako Vunipola was lucky to escape with a yellow card for shoulder charge on Beauden Barrett.
“If anyone suggests that Williams’ actions indicated that only the All Blacks ever play the game dangerously they have another look at two deeply cynical attempts by Lions prop Mako Vunipola to damage Beauden Barrett,” Gifford said.
“The late, no arms, shoulder charge screamed for a yellow card, and it would have been hard to argue that his dive into an unprotected Barrett on the ground didn’t raise the level very close to red.”
The New Zealand Herald’s Patrick McKendry said the loss of Williams severely disadvantaged the All Blacks for 55 minutes and “was probably the main reason for their defeat, their first in New Zealand of course since their loss to South Africa in Hamilton in 2009.”