U-turn as New Zealand rugby teen star axed over assault

Wellington (AFP) - New Zealand rugby officials on Tuesday terminated the contract of a teenage star who viciously assaulted four people including two women, following a public outcry after he escaped conviction.

After initially supporting winger Losi Filipo, rugby administrators performed a U-turn following a heated reaction that even saw Prime Minister John Key drawn into the debate.

Filipo, 18, dodged conviction because a judge said he did not want to derail his career, sparking accusations the court system in rugby-mad New Zealand gives sports stars special treatment.

"If it was anyone else on the street, they wouldn't be let off for any of this -- for attacking four of us -- punching two females," Kelsey Odell, one of his victims, told TV3.

Key also weighed in, telling reporters: "Violence is unacceptable anywhere, it doesn't matter what your profession."

New Zealand Rugby (NZR), which was criticised last month over its handling of sexual assault allegations against Waikato Chiefs players, had argued that Filipo was dealt with by the court system and should not be shunned.

"We believe young men, like Losi, are better off with rugby in their lives," NZR chief Steve Tew said in a statement early Tuesday.

However, the issue dominated radio phone-ins and Wellington Rugby, which holds Filipo's contract, had more than 1,000 negative comments on its Facebook page.

By early evening it released a statement saying the organisation and Filipo "have mutually agreed to the termination of his contract".

"The parties agreed that the termination of his contract was the best outcome for all," it said, describing the situation as "unfortunate".

Filipo's defence did not dispute the facts of the unprovoked late-night attack in central Wellington last year involving the player and his brother.

The teenager stamped on the head of one of the male victims as he lay prone on the ground, leaving the man unable to work for eight months.

Odell, a model, said she will require plastic surgery to her face after Filipo hit her. The other woman was punched in the throat.

In sentencing, judge Bruce Davidson said such a serious attack would normally attract an 18-month jail term but a conviction would hinder Filipo's chances of playing professionally.

"I have to ask myself, are the courts truly in the business of destroying people's career prospects?" he asked.

Several All Blacks have also avoided convictions after facing criminal charges, including Julian Savea (domestic violence) and George Moala (assault).

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