WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The selection of winger Sevu Reece in Steve Hansen’s All Blacks squad capped a remarkable turnaround for a player embroiled in a domestic violence case last year but his rapid rehabilitation has not been welcomed in all quarters in New Zealand.
The Fiji-born flyer was fined NZ$750 (398.6 pounds) and discharged without conviction for an assault on his girlfriend last July.
The Hamilton District Court heard evidence Reece had dragged his girlfriend to the ground during a drunken argument on a night out in the North Island city, causing her to suffer facial injuries and bruises to her knee and waist.
Playing provincial rugby for Waikato at the time, Reece was due to head to Europe to join Connacht but the Irish side cancelled his contract.
Four of New Zealand’s five Super Rugby franchises would not touch Reece but the Canterbury Crusaders threw the 22-year-old a lifeline, with coach Scott Robertson describing him as a “quality young kid” and deserving of a second chance.
Reece has since topped the competition with 15 tries for the season and underlined his talent with a brace against the Wellington Hurricanes that helped the Crusaders book their place in Saturday’s final against the Jaguares.
“He just plays like he enjoys his rugby doesn’t he? He’s a pocket rocket and I’m excited about working with him,” Hansen told reporters after the squad was announced on Tuesday.
Reece’s troubled history barely generated a mention in New Zealand’s mainstream media on Wednesday, barring criticism from New Zealand Herald columnist Chris Rattue, who noted a “surprising” lack of outrage in New Zealand.
“On one hand, you could argue that the All Blacks have selected Sevu Reece with indecent haste, given what emerged in a court case just last year,” Rattue wrote.
“On the other hand … well, there isn’t another hand to my mind.”
A prominent anti-domestic violence campaigner was scathing of Reece’s selection, saying the “optics” alone should have ruled out the winger.
“There are just so many things wrong here that the rugby union really need to look at their selection processes,” Ang Jury, chief executive of New Zealand NGO Women’s Refuge, told Reuters on Wednesday.
“I am really sick of this, it is an ongoing issue that the rugby union need to get a grip on.”
Reece’s inclusion comes days after New Zealand Rugby (NZR) cleared Crusaders players of wrongdoing after one was accused of making homophobic remarks at a fast food outlet in Cape Town and another was alleged to have spat beer on a woman at a nightclub.
NZR has previously been condemned by women’s groups for its handling of off-field incidents involving local players.
Super Rugby’s Waikato Chiefs lost sponsors in 2016 after a hired stripper accused players of touching her without consent and pouring beer on her during a post-season party.
NZR conducted its own investigation and said the allegations could not be substantiated.
NZR was also embarrassed in 2013 when All Blacks winger Julian Savea was charged with an assault of his partner, having been the face of an anti-domestic violence campaign the previous year.
Despite pending court proceedings, Savea was retained in Hansen’s All Blacks squad months later and he escaped conviction after complying with a police demand to complete an anger management course and publicly apologise.
Jury said NZR should have updated their selection policies years ago to take a harder line on players involved in domestic violence.
“I’m disappointed that the rugby union has gone down this road yet again,” she said.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)