All Blacks center Sonny Bill Williams banned for 4 weeks

BY AP • July 2, 2017

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) All Blacks center Sonny Bill Williams has been suspended for four weeks after being sent off for a dangerous shoulder charge in Saturday's second test against the British and Irish Lions.

Williams became the first All Black in 50 years to be sent off in a rugby test when he was shown a red card in the 25th minute for making contact with the head of Lions winger Anthony Watson. The Lions went on to win 24-21 and level the three-match series that will now be decided in the third test in Auckland next weekend.

Williams pleaded guilty when he appeared before a judicial panel in Wellington on Sunday. The panel deliberated for more than two hours before imposing the suspension, which rules the midfielder out of the third test.

Speaking outside the hearing, Williams said he was ''really disappointed but happy to be able to get in there and say my piece.

''They've come to the conclusion that it was reckless, that it wasn't intentional.

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

The All Blacks have called up Highlanders center Malakai Fekitoa, who has played eight tests, as Williams' replacement. New Zealand has already lost midfielder Ryan Crotty to a hamstring strain suffered in the first test at Auckland, which it won 30-15.

In leveling the series on Saturday the Lions won a test in New Zealand for the first time since 1993 and became the first team to beat the All Blacks at home in 48 tests since 2009.

Williams' sending off was a major factor in the Lions' win, forcing the All Blacks to play the last 55 minutes of the match with 14 men.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen told reporters Williams was sorry for his action and the cost to his team. Williams threw himself into a no-arms tackle on Watson, striking the young winger in the head with his shoulder. Watson left the field for a head injury assessment but returned to see out the match.

''Whatever I say is going to be twisted,'' Hansen said. ''There is a (judicial) process and we trust the process.

''Sonny has paid a big price. The team has paid a big price. Whoever is adjudicating the process, they will listen to all the information they are given and then they will make a decision.

''Sonny is disappointed, not for himself. He accepts that he made a mistake and he's disappointed that he has let the team down. The mantra is that the team comes first and he knows he has let them down. But we can't go back and change it either.''

Hansen said rugby was a physical game, played at high speed and incidents such as the one involving Williams were likely to occur from time to time.

''You'd have to be silly to think we are going out there to be nice,'' he said.''One of the reasons we love rugby - and I assume you guys as journalists love rugby, correct me if I am wrong - is the varying natures of the game.

''And one of those natures is the brutality and intensity that comes with it. You're asking people to be warriors within the laws and that's what's happening.

''There is no genuine test match that doesn't challenge you physically and mentally and it is great for rugby. We are having to learn as a young team how to cope with that.''

Lions backrower Sean O'Brien is free to play in the third test after being cleared later Sunday of a charge of striking All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo with a swinging arm.

O'Brien was cited over the 59th-minute incident which forced Naholo from the field.

The judicial committee comprising Australians Adam Casselden, David Croft and John Langford dismissed the charge but gave no reasons for its decision.