Sonny Bill Williams' rocky All Blacks debut that led to man of the match second outing
By Sam Smith
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Sonny Bill Williams’ debut for the All Blacks on November 6th, 2010 made headlines for a number of reasons. The 25-year-old was yet to play a single game of Super Rugby, having played just one season of rugby union for Canterbury at NPC level, making the Rugby League convert just the fourth player to play for the All Blacks with no Super Rugby experience.
To fans’ surprise, not only was Williams named in the 23 to start the All Blacks’ opening match of the Northern Tour, he was handed the 13 jersey to partner Ma’a Nonu, making for the heaviest All Blacks midfield partnership ever.
The 26-16 victory also provided maiden Test starts for Sam Whitelock and Alby Matthewson, while Nonu and Williams were joined in the backline by a lethal lineup of Dan Carter, Hosea Gear, Joe Rokocoko and Mils Muliaina.
Williams’ performance displayed hints of the physicality the former NRL star had become known for, delivering a number of offloads through the tackle of multiple defenders, enough to impress some fans while others remained sceptical of the newcomer’s all-around game.
Sonny Bill Williams is our small ball-playing centre. I fear for the safety of future opponents
Williams’ first touch of the match came within the opening minute, receiving a poor pass from Mils Muliaina as the fullback was rushed by the English defence, Sonny Bill was able to collect the ball and make a few meters with a leg drive aided by Ma’a Nonu and Brad Thorn.
The centre’s next touch came with the All Blacks backline in motion, Williams found himself running the sideline and cutting infield to receive the drop-off pass from Joe Rokocoko, engaging two defenders before finding Nonu inside him and the ball was kept alive with more meters gained.
Impressively, Williams backed his instincts around the breakdown, a difficult element of the game to navigate coming from Rugby League. The Aucklander’s physicality and willingness to swoop on loose balls saw him clean up some untidy rucks and retain possession for his team.
Williams’ big highlight came in the 16th minute, as he received the ball at halfway, spotted a gap and burst into it, again engaging multiple defenders and getting the offload away to a rampaging Jerome Kaino who in turn delivered a wide ball to Hosea Gear who’s pace ensured the try was scored in the corner.
Criticism of the debutant mainly mentioned his skillset as a distributor, noting an unwillingness to pass unless it was an offload while his history of dangerous tackles remained a concern.
The match alone wasn’t enough to convince All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry of Williams’ readiness for the Test arena.
“They created a bit, didn’t they? The first try was from a Sonny Bill break but I think the jury’s still out,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll be entirely happy with his game but he’ll be better for the experience.
“What else would you expect? His first game, in front of 82,000 at Twickenham, is a pretty big ask. I’m pretty happy with what he displayed.”
Williams’ assessment of the match was well aligned with that of his coach, admitting his performance had some highs and lows and hoping for another shot in the black jersey to apply the learnings and make his mark on the match.
“I spent the few hours after the game feeling proud of myself for accomplishing what I said I wanted to do when I came across to rugby,” he said. “But I was disappointed with my own game and I am looking for a bit more game time to improve on my performance.
“I pride myself on my work rate and the intensity was a huge step up from the national competition at home in New Zealand. It was a rollercoaster out there. I did a couple of good things and a couple of bad things. The biggest thing for me is feeling like you let the boys down.
“The only way you will improve as a player was through game time. We have class players but hopefully, I will get another shot. Hopefully, I can stay in that 22, keep learning and it will be like a snowball effect, so I can start expressing myself a lot more. If I do get another shot I will back myself a lot more.”
Henry backed his man and Williams started in the 12 jersey the following week at Murrayfield, a 49-3 victory where Sonny Bill earned man of the match with his offload game setting up three of the seven tries.
I'm sure that I'd hate him if I didn't support the Hurricanes and All Blacks but as it is I love that man to death.Go to comments
The hard work and commitment may not have led to an AB jersey. There's a big queue in his position all fighting for the same thing. However it has led to a whole new set of experiences including travel, history, cultures he may never otherwise have been exposed to. And all of that while still being able to ply his trade he loves and get paid for it! How could anyone say anything other than "Go with my blessing! You deserve it."Go to comments