Sonny Bill Williams went straight back into the All Blacks squad after a two-year stint in rugby league, writes MARC HINTON.
He’s the man with the triple-barrelled moniker the All Blacks have rewritten their own rules for. A superstar athlete, cross-code marvel and a champion in pretty much everything he does. He’s Sonny Bill Williams and he could be the final piece of the puzzle in New Zealand’s quest to make history next year.
Williams – or S-B-Dubya as he’s know universally – will return to the All Blacks fold for November’s tour north that will take in stops in Chicago, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. That’s a given, even though the pending birth of Williams’ first child could complicate matters ever so slightly.
Williams, you see, is a special case. He will have played just a game or two of rugby union in 2014 – and none in 2013 – when he jumps on the plane out of Auckland with the All Blacks. He’s spent the last two seasons in Australia’s NRL with the Sydney Roosters, doing what he does best – unleashing his phenomenal physical gifts on to the footy field and winning championships.
He has committed to New Zealand rugby for the next two years, with suggestions he’s keen to chase a golden double of the World Cup next year and Olympic sevens gold in 2016 in Rio. But with limited Tests prior to the global tournament next year – the All Blacks have just five on the books – coach Steve Hansen has changed his own rules to usher Williams in for an early taste in November.
‘It’s important,’ says Hansen who got the NZRU board to pass a special mandate to allow Williams to be picked for the November tour without having played any rugby in New Zealand (as it turned out it wasn’t necessary as the Roosters’ semi-final elimination allowed him to turn out for Counties Manukau in the latter stages of the NPC). ‘We want to take him because there are a limited amount of opportunities before we go to the World Cup after the end-of-year tour.
‘If he were to be successful for the Chiefs and make the finals, he’d miss some of those Tests. It’s going to be important. We’re looking forward to him coming back. He’s a very good athlete, he’ll complement the likes of Ryan Crotty, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Malakai Fekitoa in the midfield. He comes in with a subtly different skill set.’
You don’t change regulations that define your very essence for just anybody, of course. Especially not the All Blacks. Williams is very much the exception who proves the rule – a gifted, freakish athlete who wins with uncanny regularity. He has claimed two NRL titles with two different clubs, a New Zealand provincial rugby championship, a Super Rugby championship and, of course, a World Cup, in 2011 with the All Blacks.
He’s played league, then union, then league again, and now union again. He is only the second player ever – and first since the 1920s – to represent the All Blacks after playing the 13-man code for his country. Oh, by the way, he was also undefeated in six pro fights and was crowned New Zealand heavyweight boxing champ, before hanging up the gloves to concentrate on his footy.
So, what makes this guy so good that people practically fall over themselves to have him in their code? Hansen is probably best placed to comment as he’s suspended some pretty firm principles to usher him back into the fold.
‘You get an ultimate professional, you get a guy who’s freakish in his ability and you get a quality rugby player,’ says the All Blacks coach. ‘We saw he can play the game and he’s only going to get better. And he’s someone who plays in a position where we have a problem with depth. It’s only in the past 12 months that Crotty has put his hand up and said, “I’m better than just a fill-in; I can be a guy you can trust.” Crotts has done a great job and is putting us under pressure now to make some decisions.’
‘You get an ultimate professional, you get a guy who’s freakish in his ability and you get a quality rugby player' – Steve Hansen
Sure, Crotty has played well in occasional relief of Nonu. But Williams he ain’t. At 1.94m and 108kg, Williams has forwards size but backs speed and skill. He is long and uses those levers to full advantage. His trademark offload in the tackle has become arguably the most copied individual move in the game – Kieran Read being possibly the best practitioner.
‘He’s a match-winner,’ says All Blacks great and Sky Sport analyst Jeff Wilson. ‘First and foremost, that’s why you sign him. If you want impact and creativity, he’s got the ability to do something not many players can do. The way he plays there is definite risk and reward – he is inclined to make the odd mistake, but that’s something they will be well and truly aware of.
‘When he came into rugby the first time, everything was an offload. But by the end he knew when to carry, when to go to ground, and when to look for support, and was making much better decisions. Is he an 80-minute footballer? I’m not so sure, but he’s an unbelievable weapon and when you need something special, he can do that.’
Wilson’s long-time All Blacks teammate and fellow pundit Andrew Mehrtens predicts an even sharper Williams second time round.
‘Every time he changes codes he seems to have grown and be able to apply what he’s learned in the other code. At times he’s shown some incredible timing in league, and he picked that up in rugby union. I’m sure he’ll come back with even more that he picked up in league this time around.’
Hansen is adamant Williams starts a long way down the track, comparing it to Brad Thorn’s wildly successful second coming.
‘When Thorny came the first time, I thought he went back to league just as he was starting to get the concepts of rugby. When he came back second time he picked it up really quickly and went from strength to strength. I’m envisaging that’s what’s going to happen with Sonny.’
So, come England 2015, could old SBW be a game-changer for the All Blacks as they look to win their first World Cup on foreign soil and become the first nation to defend the global crown?
‘As soon as he’s on the field he’s a game-breaker, and he’s a guy who gives confidence to his teammates and a hell of a lot of nervous moments to the opposition,’ says Mehrtens.
A guy you change your rules for. Welcome back, Sonny.
– This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine