Sonny Bill Williams will lean on his experience as a boxer when he faces the Springboks in what should be a gruelling physical contest on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports from Johannesburg.
The All Blacks were bullied by the Boks at the collisions in Wellington three weeks ago. In the dying moments of that contest, it was the Boks rather than the No 1-ranked side who showed the necessary composure to clinch the result.
The All Blacks will go into the rematch at Loftus Versfeld with more than one point to prove. On Thursday, coach Steve Hansen said that he will be watching closely to see how his chief decision-makers respond when the pressure is applied by the opposition and the partisan home crowd.
Williams will have a key role to play in this respect. He knows what it takes to prevail in the big Tests, having featured in an All Blacks side that won two World Cups in 2011 and 2015.
On Thursday, Williams told a media conference in Johannesburg that the players are desperate to set the record straight. They are viewing the next game as an opportunity to show what they can do when the heat is on.
The conference took an interesting turn, though, when Williams was asked about his stint as a boxer. Williams said that his seven bouts between 2009 and 2015 provided him with some valuable lessons.
According to the code-crossing star, those lessons may come in handy when he faces off against the belligerent Boks in the hostile environment of Loftus.
‘In rugby, I’m fortunate enough to have 14 other blokes to lean on for support. You don’t have that luxury in boxing,’ he said.
‘Boxing has helped me for rugby and rugby has helped me for boxing. I haven’t had a fight for a few years, but I still lean on those tough times. Being in those dark places in the ring, and being able to come through those, it teaches you a lot.
‘This week should be no different [in terms of the challenge]. You have the rest of the boys there to back you up, but you will still go to that dark place in the sense that you will be playing at altitude, the highest place you get in rugby terms. It’s going to be tough physically. It’s going to be mentally draining as well.’
The All Blacks scored six tries against the Boks in Wellington. They felt that they could have been more clinical in certain situations, though, and will be striving for a superior attacking showing this week.
Williams, who missed the game in Wellington due to injury, said he was looking forward to facing the revamped Bok defence. The rush certainly rattled the All Blacks in the previous game, and the Boks look set to employ the same tactics this Saturday.
‘International rugby has seen a shift in the past few years with defence coming up a lot quicker. We saw that a few weeks ago, and we’ve seen it when we play against European teams. Us in the midfield, we have our work cut out for us. But we’re looking forward to that challenge.’
Hansen brushed aside suggestions that the All Blacks defence required a rethink after conceding five tries to the Boks. The All Blacks coach appeared more concerned by what the South Africans could do with their defence.
‘We gave them three tries: through that intercept, the poor maul defence and the quick throw-in. We missed only eight tackles in that game, so our defence wasn’t too bad,’ he said.
‘There were one or two system errors that we looked at. We have tried to understand how to play against a team that is looking to apply the pressure like that.
‘South Africa are using their big defence to apply that pressure. They’ve got pace out wide and they’re capable of scoring tries off your mistakes. It sounds like someone else I know.
‘There’s been a lot of looking at how we can put pressure on them this week. It’s going to be the kind of Test match you live for.’