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Sonny Bill Williams 'a cut above' the average Mitre 10 player

David Beck – NZ Herald

When the All Blacks released Sonny Bill Williams to play for Counties Manukau this week he had two big boxes to tick; get some minutes under his belt and prove his body can handle those minutes.

He did both in Katikati on Saturday, playing 80 minutes of rugby in a preseason outing for Counties – one half against Wellington and another against Bay of Plenty in a ‘Game of Three Halves’ preseason hit-out.

It was crucial game time for the midfielder, who has played just 38 games of XVs rugby since the 2015 World Cup final, with the All Blacks’ first World Cup match less than 50 days away.

While neither encounter allowed him sufficient space to really set the world alight, he did everything he needed to. The first was a scrappy 5-all draw with Wellington while the second, played into a strong breeze, resulted in a 31-0 pummelling at the hands of Bay of Plenty.

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Williams’ class and match awareness were obvious throughout. He embraced contact, threw a few trademark offloads and the odd brave individual who chose to run at him certainly felt the full impact of those big shoulders.

The environment was in stark contrast to the last game he played – the All Blacks 16-all draw with South Africa in their Investec Rugby Championship Test in Wellington. He said he had enjoyed his time in Katikati and playing for Counties.

“[The goal was] just to get through 80 minutes, have a bit of fun and enjoy it. The body’s feeling good, it was good to get through 80,” Williams said afterward.

When asked if he felt he was in good stead to play in the Rugby World Cup, Williams said: “I hope so, we’ll see.”

Sonny Bill Williams

Sonny Bill Williams and Ngani Laumape are in direct competition for a place at the World Cup. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Counties Manukau head coach Darryl Suasua said Williams was an influential leader in the side without putting himself on a pedestal.

“He (Sonny Bill Williams) listens and he’ll add his bit but he’s still learning the stuff we’ve been working on, he’s only been here a week. He just puts himself down on the same level as everyone else, he’s not someone who wants everybody to look up to him.

“He’s awesome, he’s a great guy. He’s come in and he works hard with the boys. There’s a real bit of class, you could see in the first half there when the boys were fresh and Wellington’s second team came out there he created a lot of space for us, it’s great to have him out there.

“One of the things we could see when he first came in and trained with us is the difference between him and the boys who have come out of Mitre 10 or Super Rugby – he’s certainly a cut above.”

It was also Williams’ 34th birthday, something two young locals made note of when they hijacked the loudspeaker to sing him happy birthday as he ran onto the field. It took Williams half an hour to leave the field at the end of the game as he was mobbed by enthusiastic fans.

Williams will play for Counties again next week in their regular season opener against Taranaki in Pukekohe.

“From that it’s obviously a week by week thing around what the All Blacks want,” Suasua told Radio Sport. “The instructions for us were to see if we could get him as much game time as possible. We love having him on board.”

Game of Three Halves Results
Wellington 24 Bay of Plenty 15
Wellington 5 Counties Manukau 5
Counties Manukau 0 Bay of Plenty 31

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Sonny Bill Williams 'a cut above' the average Mitre 10 player