New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English has weighed on the controversy surrounding Sonny Bill Williams' decision to tape over a shirt sponsor during his debut for the Auckland Blues on Saturday.
Williams returned to action following an eight-month absence with an achilles injury, making his first appearance for Tana Umaga's men, but his impressive display during the Blues' 26-20 defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin was overshadowed by his decision to apply tape to his jersey collar, covering the Bank of New Zealand logo.
It's understood Williams covered the sponsorship logo for religious reasons, but speaking on TV3 in New Zealand, Prime Minister English - albeit hesitantly - pointed out that Williams should not receive special treatment relative to his teammates in such circumstances. Speaking on the AM Show, English said:
It is hard to understand that one guy has to behave differently than the rest. I don't understand all these professional contracts, but if you're in the team, you're in the team.
While a Blues representative stated that the Auckland franchise would be seeking a 'please explain' from SBW, New Zealand Rugby confirmed that the 31-year-old midfielder had "lodged a conscientious objection under the Players' Collective".
Their statement read:
Sonny Bill Williams has conscientious objections to promoting tobacco, alcohol, finance companies and gambling.
With social media awash with questions, Blues captain James Parsons offered his support to "true professional" Williams, while Williams himself announced yesterday that he'll clarify his decision during the week.
— Newshub Sport (@NewshubSport) April 9, 2017
In regards to my jersey during the game I'll clarify the situation during the week.
— Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) April 9, 2017
But why does Sonny Bill Williams tape over his shirt sponsor?
It's understood Williams, who is a Muslim, has taken a religious stance against 'usury', i.e. charging interest and fees on loans. As such, he covered over the BNZ logo and not the rest of his side's kit sponsors.
Williams converted to Islam in 2008 while playing for Toulon in France's Top 14, and became the first Muslim to ever represent the All Blacks.
Prior to his religious conversion, the talented inside back had been involved in a number of alcohol-related incidents including a low-range DUI charge and a public urination offence. Williams has, in the past, publicly stated that these incidents and others have made him the man he is today.
He has also in the past worn jerseys containing the BNZ logo - most notably during his spell at the Chiefs, for whom the bank were the main shirt sponsor.
New Zealand Rugby have confirmed that they will not take action against Williams, indicating that this would instead be an issue for his club to resolve.