Don’t forget to have fun. It may sound like a strange message for the All Blacks as they prepare for a test against the Wallabies at Eden Park which will determine the fate of the Bledisloe Cup but it’s one delivered with the best of intentions by Sonny Bill Williams, a midfielder returning in the nick of time.
Jack Goodhue’s hamstring injury means Williams will either start against Australia on Saturday or run on from the reserves bench should the All Blacks select second-five Ngani Laumape to start alongside centre Anton Lienert-Brown instead.
And, after playing two full games for Counties recently, Williams has re-found the fun aspect of rugby. He didn’t react well to a recent story in the Herald which suggested he was under pressure to perform in the Mitre 10 Cup in order to make his third World Cup squad, but his joie de vivre is back big time this week as he prepares to return to the black jersey.
“When you come into an environment like this; there’s a lot of pressure and it’s high stakes footy,” Williams said. “To go back there [to Counties], you can just enjoy being around the boys and playing with your mates.
“Obviously the [All Black] boys are hurting [after loss last weekend] … but we have to perk ourselves up and smile. For myself, that’s what I’m about because I have got in that place where everything’s serious – it’s footy, footy, footy. And you lose the enjoyment aspect.”
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Williams, short of rugby this year due to a long list of injuries, including a knee problem and hamstring strain, was satisfactory against the Boks in the recent drawn test in Wellington before he was told to improve his match fitness in a less intense environment.
He said there were few messages from the selectors apart from: “Just go out and get a feel for it – get the running game going and just back yourself. At Counties, one of our pillars is having fun and another is expressing yourself so I just tried to do that.”
Asked if he felt he was on trial, he said: “I think you’re always on trial. If you don’t think you are then you’ll be slipping. For myself, I’ve really focused on being where my feet are, being grateful, and also understanding if you concentrate too much on the big picture you lose sight of what’s happening in front of you.”
Assistant coach Ian Foster felt Williams did enough at Counties to suggest he was on track. With Williams yet to commit to New Zealand Rugby for next year, and unlikely to, this will be his final Bledisloe Cup test and probably final game at Eden Park.
“He’s now had some good minutes under his belt,” Foster said. “We gave him some time against South Africa and we were okay with what he did on the park but we just felt he needed more game time and that’s something we’ve done regularly.
“You look at the running metres for his game for Counties and they were huge so he worked really hard. He’s come back in and his own confidence has grown.”
Watching the All Blacks lose to the Wallabies in Perth was not as easy for the former league player who has spent a lot of time across the ditch.
“It was tough. From a personal point of view, you want to be a part of it but you also want the boys to do well. It was a tough game to watch but I was proud of the boys and the ticker they showed. They hung in there and showed some fight as All Blacks do.”
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