Sonny Bill Williams has spoken of the high emotions in his household at the news he would be attending his third Rugby World Cup, his responsibilities to the All Blacks, and how he never gave up hope of making what will be his last tournament in the black jersey despite his near constant injury setbacks.
Williams, 33, is one of four midfielders in the 31-man All Black squad for Japan, but his inclusion was no given even despite his capacity to do extraordinary things on a rugby pitch. He had to prove his fitness in two matches for Counties recently – and the Herald understands he requested a team sheet in order to memorise the names of all the squad members as a mark of respect – and then front against the Wallabies at Eden Park.
Like the rest of his teammates, Williams put in a stunning performance against Australia. He again defended well and scored a try in the second half after running a very brave line back into heavy traffic by the posts. Throughout he was aware of potential Wallabies threats and never stopped communicating with Richie Mo’unga inside him and Anton Lienert-Brown outside.
That he did so is a testament to his physical and mental toughness and ability to shine on the biggest stage, something he acknowledged as a gift he is lucky to have.
In an interview with Radio Sport’s Jim Kayes which will be aired today, Williams began by explaining what making the trip to Japan meant for him and his family “because of the magnitude of it and after the year that I’ve had”. Williams is already in possession of two World Cup winners’ medals from the 2011 and 2015 tournaments.
“I actually watched the naming for the first time,” he tells Kayes. “I watched it with my family. There were a few tears from my wife and brother and it really just made it feel real – this thing that you strive for … has paid off. I’m really excited to be here and now there’s a job to do and hopefully that’s to create history.”
Asked about his injuries – his latest was a knee problem which required surgery and wrecked his season at the Blues – Williams said: “You get knocked down but you’ve just got to get back up. To be honest, it has been really tough and I’ve had to show a lot of resilience. But I’m just proud. A skilled sailor was never made in smooth waters and I’ve definitely struggled in that respect over the past few years.
“Against Australia and in those big games; I thrive on those moments because they are the biggest stages where you can create history. I love those types of moments. Even a few years ago I could have been caught off guard, caught in the red and flustered [by the pressure]. I understand when I get in those moments and the process to get myself out of them.”
Asked whether he was tempted to stop given the way his body has failed him recently, Williams said: “To be honest, no. I try to live my life with the glass-half-full mentality and that’s what my faith gives me.
“When you’re praying five times a day and you’re trying to pray not just with your limbs but with your heart, it just naturally happens. I’m grateful to be able to live my life as a professional sportsman doing what I love – not having to dig holes or paint houses like my brother does every day for a living. A little injury here or there – it ain’t no thing in the big scheme of things.”
If the way the Springboks defended against him during the drawn test in Wellington is any guide, Williams will attract plenty of attention in Japan. But for the former league player who became known for his flamboyant offloads – a skill he still has – and shoulder-charging defence (which he has had to curb), that has always been there.
“I’ve always had that, I guess. But if I can open up space elsewhere by attracting players then I’m doing my job. In my younger days it may have been about getting on the highlight reels and making big plays but now I know to be a good team player you don’t have to do that fancy stuff. Although, when I’m on song that stuff comes naturally.”
Williams, who has played 53 tests and enjoyed a well-travelled Super Rugby career at the Crusaders, Chiefs and Blues, will always divide opinion despite what he has achieved in the game, but probably not for much longer as he doesn’t have a New Zealand Rugby contract for next year.
Sonny’s last days in a black jersey are coming quickly. Since 2010 when he returned from France to play for Canterbury in the national provincial championship, it’s been an entertaining spectacle.
Did he ever think he would attend three World Cups?
“No, never. For a guy that grew up not even really watching rugby union and idolising rugby league players to ‘okay, I’m a rugby player now, I want to achieve something’ to being where I am right now, it’s an amazing feeling. But at the same time, with this comes responsibilities and I’m part of a team that wants to make history.”
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