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Ali Williams: Five of the best locks I've played against

Former All Blacks lock Ali Williams discusses five of the best locks he’s played both with and against in his exclusive RugbyPass column.

Nathan Sharpe – Australia

I played Nathan several times in both Super Rugby and during internationals.

On the field, he didn’t look like a lot but he was a great player. He didn’t look like he could carry the ball very well but he was deceptively good at it and kept his feet.

In the lineout he was just a genius. He understood what you were trying to do, and he eventually tried to crack you. There was a lot of mental games that went on with him.

First and foremost, he was a leader. He led that team around by his actions. With leaders, you’ve got to combat them and make them focus on themselves so that they can’t have as much impact or influence on the rest of their team.

Leaders can lead in two ways, they lead by voice or they lead by actions. Nathan was definitely a man of action, so you had to take away the example he was setting.

You play against these guys so often, you get to know them off the field. Sharpey was a great man off the field. He was quick to move on from the game. We’d always have a casual beer after the match and talk about, not just rugby, but life after, life during, family and things like that.

I think there was a great connection there.

Patricio Albacete – Argentina

He was one of those lads where you just know when he’s hit you. He was very direct.

Patricio was great in the ruck with no cameras around him. You always knew that he was around because you had sore ribs.

He’s also far better looking than me, so that’s why I had to win on the field because off the field I’m sure he was streaks ahead of me in terms of getting free beers and the like.

Patricio Albacete. Photo / Getty Images

He has a great sense of humour. A lot of the South Americans do. They enjoy life, they enjoy great food. It’s not just about the game, it’s also about the week.

When you play against guys like Patricio quite often, you understand what they’re like. Off the field, I can recall one night when we were all a bit lost in Buenos Aires. I remember Patricio saying “Hey, I’ve got this lads, follow me.” He took us to an outstanding nightclub and we all thought, “Whoa, we’ll hang out with this guy a lot more.”

So off the field, his leadership was insane.

Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield – South Africa

Now we get to my mates in South Africa. I can’t just say that there was one of them, I think that both Bakkies and Victor had a pretty unique impact in my career.

Bakkies and Victor played so closely together. Bakkies was great because he always talked in the third person. He would take you out, put you in a headlock, smash you off the ball, make a high tackle, whatever it was, and then you’d hit him up after the game.

“Bakkies mate, that was not called for eh, you didn’t have to whack me like that,” you’d say. “Bakkies didn’t do that” was the response. You would follow up with “I’m pretty sure it was you, mate,” and he would stonewall you again with “Bakkies doesn’t do that”.

The other thing that people may not know about Bakkies is that he’s always one to kiss. He loves air-kisses. He’ll look at you from the opposite side of the scrum and blow you a big kiss, you’d look at this 2.02m big giant – and he’s no oil painting, that’s for sure – kissing you.

It was a scary sight in itself. Especially before a scrum, normally it would mess with your head.

Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Photo / Getty Images

Bakkies didn’t show his face after hours too often – that wasn’t his thing – which is part of what made him and Victor such a great partnership.

On the field, Victor was an astute man of the lineout, understood it, great around the field in terms of running the ball and understanding what he needed to do. He was another excellent leader.

He was just as magical off the field. I don’t think there were many Tests where Victor and I didn’t go and have a few beers after the game and go out together. We became really great mates off the field. We really challenged each other and looked at the game in the same light.

Brad Thorn – New Zealand

How many things do we need to say about Brad Thorn. He’s a great man.

The first story that comes to mind, and one that sums up Brad’s style, took place against South Africa in Wellington.

I think the whistle had already blown, he screamed into a ruck and ended up with John Smit on his shoulders. He just picked him up and threw him to the ground. I remember saying “Thornie what are you doing that for?” and he said “He jumped on my shoulders, I didn’t put him there”.

He was of that simple mentality, “we’ve got to hurt them before they hurt us”. His presence was constantly felt by both the opposition and his own teammates. You would be in a ruck and think you’ve won it before something barrelled into you – it would be your own teammate screaming out “let’s go boys, let’s go!”. We all got used to Thornie’s big claps and air punches, it was just priceless.

For me personally, partnering with Brad was one of the best combinations I was a part of. He knew his role and played it very well. Our styles didn’t necessarily cross-over but we mutually respected each others’ skill sets.

While he never dared to put a kick in – I think he would be ashamed of himself if he kicked the ball – he was in fact a great kicker of the rugby ball. Because he used to play Australian Rules, he could really kick a ball, but he would never do it on the rugby field because he didn’t want to ruin his brand of “Big Bad Brad”.

I remember my first encounter with Brad. He came off the bench for Canterbury in 2001, I believe, just before he made the All Blacks. I vividly remember the first time we gave him a kickoff. As soon as he got up there to receive, he couldn’t catch a thing. That became our thing, once we played together he said “look mate, you just make sure you catch the kickoff, I’ll do everything else.” My days as a goalkeeper definitely helped in that regard. Towards the end of Brad’s career he obviously got quite good in that area as well.

Off the field, Brad was great. Pre-match we would always sit together and chew the fat. We would sit, we would laugh and we would talk, and you just couldn’t believe that this was the guy who was going to run out and be the enforcer and aggressor that he was.

He’s a very relaxed human being, a big gentle giant. A great family man, and you knew that when he was speaking to you, it was coming from the heart.

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Ali Williams: Five of the best locks I've played against | RugbyPass