Gerry Thornley: Why Sonny Bill Williams had to see red

Referee Jerome Garces left with no option but to make it a third All Black red card

All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams is shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

All Blacks’ Sonny Bill Williams is shown a red card by referee Jerome Garces during the second Test against the British & Irish Lions. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Kevin Kelleher was my old headmaster, as he was for so many thousands of others, for over half a century at St Conleth’s. A remarkably healthy man until he passed away last year at the age of 95, he was also the honorary secretary of the Leinster Schools Committee for 52 years.

A comparatively smaller part of his life was as an international rugby referee, although he must have been good. He presided over 23 international matches between 1960 and 1972, which remained a record for a long, long time.

He only sent off two players in his career as a referee, one of whom, of course, was Colin Meads. Even now, in the fall-out from Sonny Bill Williams’ red card against the Lions on Saturday, columnists still dispute Kelleher’s decision to dismiss Meads, who was voted as the All Blacks player of the century.

Yet if you Google the infamous moment, and this was after Kelleher had warned Meads for dangerous play in the first-half, Meads clearly swings his foot at the Scottish outhalf David Chisholm.

In later life, Kelleher and Meads became friends, visiting each other’s homes in New Zealand and Ireland. Kelleher gave Meads the whistle he had used when sending him off and it is now in a rugby museum in Palmerston North.

Williams becomes only the third All Black to be sent-off, Cyril Brownlie having been the first in 1924. Their tally is now equal to Ireland. One ventures it takes a particularly brave referee to send off an All Black, and not least in New Zealand. It’s even rarer than awarding the away team a penalty at Old Trafford.

On Saturday, Jerome Garces became the first referee to do so. He would not have enjoyed doing so, but his primary duty is to protect the players. As he said himself: “I have no option. It was contact with the head and the neck. I have to protect the players.”

What made Garces’ refereeing all the braver was that he was given little encouragement by his assistants Romaine Poite and Jaco Peyper – who suggested he have another look – nor the TMO George Ayoub. Once again the performances of Peyper and Ayoub were again less than satisfactory.

Last Saturday’s second Test will now forever be associated with SBW’s red card. Unlike the celebrated Meads, the high profile SBW is not, seemingly, universally liked in New Zealand. Some commentators have suggested there will be little sympathy amongst those Kiwis not enamoured with him. Nonetheless at 31 it shouldn’t necessarily be his last act in an All Blacks jersey.

Steve Hansen reckoned “it could have been red, it could have been yellow”, but every commentator and journalist agreed Garces had no option.

Whether Williams’ led with his right shoulder in Watson’s head was intentional or not, only he knows. At the very least it was dangerous and reckless. It looked like a nasty, cheap shot. As many have observed, it was the kind of shoulder hit which is more commonplace in the National Rugby League and was probably more a legacy of his rugby league days than his boxing days.

Thereafter the home crowd, as is so often the case when on the receiving end of a red card, howled and bayed for ultimate sanctions whenever there was an opportunity to do so. In the circumstances, Garces kept a composed and fair hold on the game.

Now over to Poite. You wouldn’t envy him.

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