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A South Otago rugby player has been banned from the sport for life for punching a referee — but his victim says he forgives the player.
Vaea Uelese (28) was playing for Crescent’s senior team on July 27 when he was sent off by referee Brandon Hale.
His violent reaction was captured in a grainy video from the sideline.
The Otago Rugby Football Union confirmed yesterday Uelese would not play rugby in New Zealand again.
Usually, a life ban extends to administration, officiating or coaching, but his disqualification would be lifted in those areas at the end of the 2020 season.
Otago Rugby Referees Association chairman Chris Hart said one of the reasons Uelese received dispensation was because of the "reconciliation process" he undertook with the victim.
The incident took place towards the end of a club game against Strath Taieri in Middlemarch.
Shortly after the game, the Crescent player was charged with assault by police.
But Uelese walked away from the criminal justice system without a conviction to his name.
The Dunedin District Court confirmed Uelese completed the conditions of diversion - which can involve financial compensation, community work and/or counselling - and police withdrew the charge.
As part of that deal, the defendant had to meet Hale in what turned out to be a poignant ceremony.
Uelese made a traditional apology known in Samoan culture as "ifoga".
It involves the wrongdoer, sometimes with close and extended family members, sitting under fine mats before the victim to seek forgiveness.
If the apology is accepted, the mats are removed.
"I've forgiven the player," Hale said.
"I'm happy with how [restorative justice] was conducted. It certainly helped."
In ancient times, and on very rare occasions, those involved in an ifoga could be killed on the spot or could be left in the same spot for days.
Uelese reportedly was joined by his father in expressing his shame.
Hart said the whole family had been victimised as a result of the player's actions and it was "very encouraging" to see how seriously they had taken the process.
"But, ultimately, we don't condone that type of behaviour," he said.
Police rejected the suggestion diversion was letting Uelese off the hook.
"The police do not condone violence of any kind.
"The restorative justice process promotes accountability and should not be considered as a `light' response," a spokeswoman said.
Hale said he was determined the assault would not affect his officiating career.
"I've been out refereeing again since then and been in a similar situation where I've given a card and it hasn't really crossed my mind," he said.
Hale described the support he had received from the rugby union and from the referees association in the aftermath as "tremendous".
Uelese could not be reached for comment.