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VIDEO: Footage suggests Sonny Bill's red card hit more unlucky than malevolent

By James Flaus
Sonny Bill Williams approach to the hit on Anthony Watson suggest he was reckless but the ducking of Watson's head gave him just miliseconds to react

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The events of the second test in Wellington on Saturday provided endless talking points. Opinions vary, and the facts seem to be defined by where you’re from, who you support, or who you’re talking to. One thing we all know for sure though, is that the camera hides no-one. So instead of letting our eyes deceive us, let’s take a look through the lens.


First up in our video, in it’s own unavoidable fashion, is the Sonny Bill Williams incident. Played first at full speed it can be hard to spot amidst all that’s going on. If we look at the clip slowed down to half and then quarter speed, and from better angles, you’ll see two lines appear.

The yellow line represents the line below which Williams must hit Watson in order for it to be legal. Then the orange line, represents the same area, but after Watson drops his head.

We clock the time it takes Anthony Watson’s body to fall at 0.8 seconds. Meaning that in real time, Williams has only 0.4 seconds to react, change his body angle, and move his shoulder to hit him legally.

Looking again however, even if Watson’s head did not drop, Williams would have collided with him right on the yellow line, where it would have been legal, but a huge hit.

Another point to note is Williams’ clenched right fist. Nobody approaches a tackle with both the intention to wrap both their arms, and a closed fist. Especially given his background in rugby league, it’s a sign he’s looking for the impact some players crave.

In our final angle, it’s clear from his body shape that Williams approaches the tackle hoping to join Naholo and attempt to hold the ball up. However, he has no time to react to a falling Watson. As a result, his intention to make a hit is carried through, but his attempt to hold the ball up is not.

Is it a red card? Absolutely. Does Williams go out looking for a big hit? Yes, but what players don’t these days? Does Williams intent to make contact with the head? Almost certainly not. Severity, rashness and danger, all the ingredients for a red card are certainly there, whether they’re intended or not.


Next we look at the other man ordered off the field, Mako Vunipola, and his yellow. It differs from the red car not only in colour, but also in motive.

We found earlier that Sonny Bill Williams had little to no time to react before hitting Anthony Watson. In contrast, the first time Vunipola hits Barrett, he has two strides and roughly three metres.

As Barrett kicks, Vunipola’s eyes are never on the ball. Exactly three minutes later, he again has eyes only for Barrett.

This time he completely bypasses the tackled Sean O’Brien and makes a line for the terrified All Black playmaker, rather than protecting the ball as he should. Captain Warburton argues that Barrett is in the wrong side, which he isn’t, as he’s the tackler, but it’s irrelevant.

Barrett presents no imminent threat to the Lions keeping the ball, but he does threaten when the All Blacks have it.


Vunipola is unlike Williams in that he isn’t sent off for the severity of his play, but for the fact he looks to have a clear intent to hurt his opposition. It’s not uncommon to target a number ten, just ask Jonny Sexton, but making it as obvious as Vunipola did makes it cardable.

While Vunipola may have been sent off for his part in it, overall the Lions were hugely successful in their mission to alter the All Blacks’ game. The slowed the kiwis down and limited their options, and it was at it’s most evident in their ruck intensity.

The Lions were everywhere, led by Sam Warburton, who can’t be praised enough for his tenacity at the breakdown. Our examples are only some of many that show the Lions playing right on the edge of the rules.

With Beauden Barrett leaving his kicking boots at home they could afford to trade their penalty count for the All Blacks’ speed. This meant tactically they were rarely threatened out wide, and could control forward play with a man advantage.

Of course, by adopting a bend not break attitude in terms of penalties, some holes were exposed in the Lions defense. Their rush defensive line was helped hugely by the slow ruck ball, but when it was tested with quick passing it looked to creak from time to time.

We saw the ball kicked in behind twice by the All Blacks, both inside the Lions 22. The first is clearly a set move with Read ready to run, and both seem to be part of a plan.

By rushing up so fast, the Lions left space in behind, and when in their 22, this space isn’t covered by a full back. Meaning they relied on the speed and awareness of Watson and Daly on the wings to keep Kieran Read inches from two tries.

The Lions had well thought out tries of their own. The first displays some great passing to convert on the fact they had finally stretched the depleted All Blacks wide. A scrambling Israel Dagg was no match for a thundering Faletau, and the Lions do well to create that situation.

The second try is a perfectly executed move. The lions turn convention on its head and give the All Blacks a taste of their own style, sending a speedy hooker through a gap. Then defy the norm again at ruck time.

There’s no denying that when you see the 9, the 10 and the 12 all in the same ruck, it’s no accident. Farrell and Sexton combine to form a high speed back row while the loose forwards have been left behind by the previous play. They both hold off All Blacks to give Conor Murray a gap to dart over the line and finish off a fantastic multi phase set play.

The Lions planned and executed that try perfectly – just as they did the entire game. Of course they wouldn’t have planned on the All Blacks shooting themselves in the foot, and if Steve Hansen and his men have anything to say about it, things will be different this week.

That being said, a red card and wayward kicks at goal are mistakes, and the team that makes the least mistakes, wins the game.

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VIDEO: Footage suggests Sonny Bill's red card hit more unlucky than malevolent