Sean O'Brien is free to play for the British and Irish Lions in Saturday's series decider in Auckland after his citing for foul play was thrown out.
The Irish flanker remained in Wellington to fight his case in front of a three-man disciplinary committee - which included former Munster second-row John Langford - after being accused of making contact with Waisake Naholo's head with his swinging arm in Saturday's 24-21 win over the All Blacks. O'Brien rejected the charge and was accompanied to the hearing by Lions coach Warren Gatland, manager John Spencer and lawyer Max Duffy.
The announcement of the O’Brien case dismissal came hours after New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams was banned for four weeks for his red card in Saturday’s 24-21 defeat by the Lions, and means that the tourists take plenty of momentum into next weekend’s third Test at Eden Park.
“Firstly, I hope Waisake is ok,” O’Brien said after the decision was announced. “I’d like to thank the panel for carefully considering the case.”
Lions coach Warren Gatland added: “We’d like to thank the panel for their professional and diligent approach. We are pleased with decision. Sean is a tough but fair player and we are pleased that the panel dismissed the citing.”
Flanker O’Brien had been cited for a swinging arm challenge on All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo in the 59th minute that knocked him unconscious and forced him off the field.
The incident, which came in the lead up to the Lions’ first try in the 24-21 victory, was immediately reviewed by the television match official, George Ayoub, and deemed a legal challenge. Afterwards, the citing commissioner, Scott Nowland, decided that the contact to the head was worthy of a red card, and called O’Brien to appear at a disciplinary hearing in Wellington on Sunday night.
In a hearing that lasted more than three hours, O’Brien pled not guilty to the charge, and the citing was eventually dismissed after the panel found no foul play to consider.
A New Zealand Rugby Union statement read: “Having conducted a detailed review of all the evidence available, including all video footage and additional evidence from the player and submissions from his legal representative Max Duthie, the Independent Judicial Committee comprising Adam Casselden SC (Chair), David Croft (Ex-Australian and Queensland Reds player) and John Langford (Ex-Australian, Brumbies and Munster player) dismissed the citing complaint.”
Williams was not as lucky though, with the centre handed a four-week ban for a shoulder charge to the head of Anthony Watson that saw him become the first All Blacks player to be sent off in 50 years, and just the third overall.
The same disciplinary panel found Williams’ offence to be of a mid-range entry level and implemented a six-week ban, which was reduced to four weeks due to “his early admission, his disciplinary record, good character and remorse.”
After learning of his suspension, Williams confirmed that he had personally apologised to the Lions wing, and admitted that he had let his teammates down as he will now miss the decisive final Test against the Lions, although he will be eligible to return for the first match of the Rugby Championship against Australia on 19 August.
“I’ve got in contact with Anthony and I’ve apologised to him,” Williams said. “Overall I’m just very disappointed I was sent from the field last night and that I let my brothers down.
“I ended up getting four weeks. Obviously I’m really disappointed, but I was happy I was able to get in there and say my piece. They came to the conclusion that the tackle was reckless, but it wasn’t intentional.”
The All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, reacted to the news by calling up Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa to his squad for Saturday’s third Test, although the All Blacks also have lingering concerns over the fitness of Ryan Crotty, with the Crusaders centre losing his race to be fit for the clash at Eden Park.