Sonny Bill Williams’ play this season has been the subject of stern media scrutiny – so much so that All Black coach Steve Hansen stepped up last week to ask reporters to back off and leave him alone.
The reality is the role Williams plays in the All Blacks midfield has changed. He is being asked to do different things, most of which go unnoticed: exit or platform carries (with no offloads), clean out duties or option running that turns into clean out duties. Ultimately he has not been the central attacking figure in the All Black attack, which means he has limited chances to make the highlight plays we are used to seeing.
That changed on the weekend when the All Blacks unleashed Williams against Scotland – a deliberate change by the All Blacks that proved he’s still an attacking force. There were a high number of constructed plays around Williams as the primary playmaker or receiving option, which led to him being involved in two big plays – both times freeing up Damian McKenzie, leading to All Black tries.
H3 ‘Hit 3’ Option
The first scrum of the game showed the first signs Williams would be heavily involved in the game with a simple ‘H3’ play. The play uses 12 as the primary playmaker and is designed to isolate the opposite 13. Barrett (10) will give early ball to Williams and then wrap around, while Crotty (13) will run a short, hard line off Williams. He’ll either hit Crotty short or Barrett out the back, depending on which man the defending centre (Huw Jones) has eyes for.
Jones is caught ball-watching, losing sight of where Crotty is running. Williams hits Crotty short who explodes past Jones before being tackled by the cover defence. Jones is exposed badly – Barrett never got around to be a real option on the play, leaving no excuses for letting Crotty run free.
The All Blacks run a very similar play to H3 on the next scrum 10 minutes later, with a slight change and positional variation– Crotty moves into 12, Williams moves to 13 and the ball is given straight to Crotty at first receiver instead of Barrett. This will be the play the All Blacks will score with later on with Williams back at 12.
Making the play
With Williams a clear part of the set piece attacking plan, the All Blacks get an attacking lineout early in the second half. They are set to run another play off him when he identifies Scotland’s fullback, Stuart Hogg, defending wide as the ‘last man’ with no cover in behind. Williams is seen changing the play at the last moment, calling a grubber kick for the outside runners.
On the wide shot, we can also see Scotland’s winger Tommy Seymour (14) and halfback Ali Price (9) stationed up in the line on the blind side, leaving no sweeper to cover a kick in behind. Typically the halfback would perform a sweeper role, tracking the ball from behind the maul or ruck. Price is in no position to do so. With Hogg also on the wing, Scotland is vulnerable to a short attacking kick.
Barrett gives Williams early ball, who draws the line up and deftly grubbers in behind. With Hogg on the wing and no sweeper, McKenzie runs a perfect line and scores.
Back to H3
With the match in the balance at 15-10, the All Blacks go back to their variation of H3 with Williams at first receiver. As we saw in the first H3 play, Crotty will run short outside and Barrett will wrap around the back.
With Williams at first receiver – rather than Barrett, Williams gets alignment against the much smaller Finn Russell, and decides to take him on one-on-one.
Russell’s outside man, reserve Peter Horne, only has eyes for Crotty and does not break ranks to help Russell.
Russell makes a low tackle on Williams, leaving his ball-carrying arm free to offload. Centre Jones makes another poor decision by committing to contact with Crotty, who does not have possession and was already covered by Horne.
Had he stayed alive, he may have shadowed Barrett out the back or blocked the passing channel between Williams and McKenzie.
McKenzie makes a brilliant adjustment to his line, takes the offload and immediately spins the ball out to Barrett coming around the back for a beautifully executed All Black try.
The All Blacks opened up the playbook against Scotland to give Sonny Bill Williams multiple chances to make the big plays – and he did, proving again what a world-class player he can be. His key involvement in two tries was a key difference in the end as the All Blacks won 22-17.