Sonny Bill Williams can have no complaints about being sent off during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The 31-year-old centre became the first All Black to be red-carded in the professional era, and the first since Colin Meads received his marching orders during a match against Scotland 50 years ago.
The scores were level at 3-3 after 24 minutes in Wellington when Lions wing Anthony Watson, having picked up a loose pass, was tackled by Waisake Naholo and Williams. However, while Naholo's tackle was perfectly legal – you can see his right arm wrapped around Watson's back – Williams' most certainly was not. He did not use his arms at all and his right shoulder made direct contact with Watson's head.
French referee Jérôme Garcès handled the situation brilliantly.
'There is a clear shoulder charge to the head. I think it's a red,' he said after watching the replay of the incident on the big screen.
Australian TMO George Ayoub did not say that he agreed with Garcès, or even make a suggestion, and instead urged the referee to watch it again. Assistant referee Jaco Peyper also seemed reluctant for a red card to be shown.
Garcès did watch the incident again on the big screen and said: 'It's direct contact to the head. I need to protect the player.'
Ayoub tried desperately to get Garcès' attention again as he began to walk towards Williams, which suggests the TMO was going to recommend a yellow card instead. But the referee's mind was made up.
Apart from a World Cup final, Test matches don't come bigger than this. Garcès could have taken the easy option and decided not to 'ruin' the game by reducing a team to 14 men for 55 minutes. He may also have been swayed by the All Blacks, who are used to getting favourable treatment from referees, or by the fact that this game was in New Zealand.
However, he kept his cool, applied the law, and made the correct decision.
Williams protested with the referee as the card was brandished, but he had little reason to complain. Shoulder charges like that may go unpunished in rugby league, which Williams has played, but it's something World Rugby wants to stamp out of rugby union.
Whether the shoulder charge was unintentional, as some have suggested, or not, is irrelevant.
When watching Williams walk off, I thought back to the opening moments of the 2005 series, when Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu spear-tackled Brian O'Driscoll, ending the Lions captain's tour.
The referee that day, Frenchmen Joel Jutge, recently admitted that at least one of All Blacks tacklers, if not both, should have been red-carded. How differently would that match in Christchurch, won 21-3 by the All Blacks, have turned out had the hosts played for 79 minutes with 13 or 14 men?
Jutge said he and his assistant referees, one of whom was standing right where the incident took place, should have worked better together as a team.
Jutge will always regret not taking stronger action that day. Fortunately for Garcès, by doing what needed to be done 12 years later, he has avoided a similar fate.
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP Photo