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Byron Kelleher (Photo: Getty Images / Additional design: Tina Tiller)
Byron Kelleher (Photo: Getty Images / Additional design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyJanuary 29, 2024

Will Byron Kelleher ever really be held accountable for his actions?

Byron Kelleher (Photo: Getty Images / Additional design: Tina Tiller)
Byron Kelleher (Photo: Getty Images / Additional design: Tina Tiller)

The former All Black’s criminal behaviour has been downplayed in the media for years. As more abuse allegations come to light, will we ever see him for what he is?

A man allegedly physically attacks three women over a number of years. He suffocates one with a pillow, drags another victim down the hallway by her hair. The women run and scream for help. The police are called. He is arrested, again.

The first assault to make headlines does so in 2016. Former All Black Byron Kelleher’s attack of a then-partner in France is described as a “lovers’ quarrel” by his lawyer, and covered here in New Zealand as your run-of-the-mill, sports star in trouble overseas sort of a yarn.

Byron Kelleher in hot water. Byron Kelleher in trouble. Yet another brush with the law for Byron Kelleher, that raffish young man, devilishly handsome, romancing royalty, getting into the odd run-in with the cops. Can’t hold it against him, you know? Wrong place, wrong time. All that testosterone. Must be a hard life, post-jersey.

Byron Kelleher (R) speaks with Dan Carter and Aaron Smith after an All Blacks test in 2013 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Kelleher is found guilty of domestic violence, and receives a $300 fine. Life goes on. Over time, the cumulative effect of this once-over-lightly reporting into Kelleher’s criminal behaviour, dating back to 2009, is akin to a wry undergrad at the uni paper writing about that guy who got naked at the party again and spun his dick at all the girls. Drunken escapades. Harmless fun.

Then, earlier this month, Kelleher again appeared in a French court charged with “verbal and physical” violence towards a former partner, known as Olivia. “For no valid reason, he repeatedly insults me, pushes me, pins me against the wall, punches me and strangles me,” she said in a statement. Kelleher denies the allegations. While he acknowledges the couple argued, he claims he had “not touched her”.

The initial coverage took the tack of past reporting, with news stories diligently reworked from a French newspaper Le Parisien; yet another misdemeanour for rugby’s bad boy, who is yet to have a formal conviction against his name.

(The established style of these pieces is to mention – well before I am now – that the 47-year-old played 57 tests for the All Blacks between 1999 and 2007 before moving to France to play for Toulouse. What does it do, including these playing statistics, listing his achievements like a bite-sized curriculum vitae? I guess that depends on whether you think it’s more important to establish how many tries he scored than the number of times he allegedly punched an ex-partner, trying to rip out her fake eyelashes as she lay pinned in fear.)

For our purposes, let’s keep in mind that he wore the black jersey for the best part of a decade. His face beamed onto our screens. We cheered him on. There’s the picture of him in action at the top of the stories about his assaults, just to remind you; toned, focused. Frozen, always, at the peak of his athleticism; the halfback, the glue that holds the team together. The legend.

Those reports probably would have been about the size of the coverage, had another of Kelleher’s former partners, Yuliana Desta, not come forward to tell her story. Her abuse allegations were initially reported by both Stuff and the New Zealand Herald, but it wasn’t until last Thursday, in a piece reported by Radio New Zealand correspondent Dana Johannsen, that the full extent of Kelleher’s alleged brutality against women was laid out in forensic detail.

Desta alleges multiple instances of violence during their relationship, which lasted 16 months, ending in December 2019. The physical violence includes Kelleher punching her in the face, attempting to suffocate her, strangling her, and dragging her down the street in a headlock. She kept all the evidence, the pictures of bruises and cuts and holes punched in the wall and police reports, in a folder on her phone, labelled “BK”.

On one of these occasions, in late 2019, Desta fled to a former partner’s house for safety. A raging Kelleher arrived, attacking the man. Charges of assault and wilful damage were laid, and Kelleher’s lawyer argued for name suppression to “protect his brand identity.” This was challenged by Stuff, and he was named in March 2020. Again, he escaped conviction.

Does anyone remember that story? Does any of the past reporting ring a bell, or any alarms? Or do we have a kind of collective amnesia, whereby the horrendous behaviour of a former All Black over more than a decade can be greeted with apathy?

Until now, it hasn’t mattered if Kelleher has been named or not. On and off the field, in and out of the courthouse, his brand has remained intact. Such is the status of the black jersey. Unassailable, untainted; he played an aggressive style of rugby, remember? He was unpredictable, and it got results.

In France, the current police case against Kelleher alleges frequent episodes of violence over a relationship that began in 2010 and ended in 2015 after Olivia gave birth to their son. The pair rekindled their relationship in 2022 and the most recent allegation is from February 2023. His $300 fine for the abuse of the initial woman in France is from 2017.

Desta knew this was a pattern. She told Kelleher if she heard he did it again, she would come forward. She kept her word.

Desta’s story makes for horrific reading. She is the first, and so far the only, of Kelleher’s alleged victims to tell hers in detail. It is extraordinarily brave. Does it help that she’s not from New Zealand, that she can stay at arms-length from our culture, where it’s estimated one in three women will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime and the hyper-masculine, rugby-playing man is venerated above all else, including women’s pain?

In court last week, Olivia’s legal advocate, Thibaut Rouffiac, said it is hoped Kelleher will be held accountable for his actions. “It is time for Mr Kelleher to understand that at home, things are not resolved through violence like on a rugby field.

“We hope that the impunity he has enjoyed so far will finally end.”

I’ve never met Kelleher, but I went to Otago University when he was in his heyday playing for the Highlanders and the All Blacks, in 2002.

I would sometimes catch sight of him at the infamous student pub Gardies, drink in hand, head thrown back in laughter, surrounded by admirers.

He was a celebrity, even then. Man, he was untouchable.

Keep going!