SBW factor for the Sydney Test and his All Blacks legacy
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New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams celebrates after scoring a try against Ireland(AP Photo/SNPA, John Cowpland)
On Monday at 5.48 in the morning, a media advisory from the New Zealand Rugby Union hit my laptop in-basket: Sonny Bill Williams confirmed as injury replacement player.
The statement carried two paragraphs of quotes from the All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen. The first paragraph claimed, “it’s what we expected … and we are now all looking forward to preparing for Saturday’s challenge.”
The second paragraph made this interesting point: “We want to express our gratitude to the three parties involved in getting Sonny available for the All Blacks – Sonny’s agent Koder Nasser, the New Zealand rugby union and particularly the Panasonic Wild Knights – for their roles in allowing us to select him.”
The reference to Sonny Bill’s manager is a cause for comment, I believe. When was a player manager mentioned by the New Zealand rugby union with other players?
Who is Dan Carter’s manager? Or Richie McCaw’s?
The point here is that the New Zealand rugby union has gone out of its way to give a pat on the back to Nasser. Readers with a rugby league background will find this hard to swallow. The history of Sonny Bill is a history of a player who is very much driven by his manager. My guess is that the managers of Carter or McCaw are driven by the players.
So my take on this is that the New Zealand rugby union is reasonably sure (as they were about the return to All Black colours for the first two Tests against the Wallabies) that Sonny Bill will come back to rugby union, presumably to the Chiefs and the All Blacks, after his stint in rugby league with the Roosters.
And when will this be?
Probably in 2014, which would give Sonny Bill a lucrative 12-match season in Japan, a less lucrative season with the Roosters and then another Japan stint before moving into the Super Rugby competition and Test rugby. If not 2014, then certainly in 2015 to give himself a chance with the All Blacks and the defence of their Rugby World Cup title.
If Sonny Bill were interested in creating a legacy as a great All Black he would play on until 2017 and the British and Irish tour of New Zealand when he would be around 30 years old.
The history of Sonny Bill, though, suggests that he is more interested in ‘challenges’ rather than ‘legacy.’ It wouldn’t surprise me if after 2015 he gave up rugby or had one very very lucrative European season and then went full-time into boxing in pursuit of the world heavyweight title in a sort of more muscled imitation of the career of his mentor and friend, Anthony Mundine.
There is one caveat to all these surmises, though.
It was reported a few weeks ago that Mundine had broken off his business relationship with Nasser. How this split impacts on the sporting career of Sonny Bill remains for the future to reveal.
What we know right now is that Sonny Bill has created a limited, marginal legacy with the All Blacks. The All Blacks have given him more, a Rugby World Cup victory ring, than he has given the team.
During the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament Sonny Bill was not really needed by the All Blacks. Ma’a Nonu was a far superior inside centre than Sonny Bill, and Conrad Smith in the same category as an outside centre.
Room was found for Sonny Bill on the bench and occasionally, against less than top tier rugby national sides, as a starter on the wing. Sonny Bill came on in the last few minutes of the semi-final against the Wallabies and promptly got a yellow card. In the final, he again came on with only a few minutes to play. This time he kept his discipline and, therefore, he was on the field when Craig Joubert blew his whistle for full-time.
My guess is, and this is only a guess, Sonny Bill was virtually promised a spot in the All Blacks and (if at all possible) some time on the field during the Rugby World Cup final when the negotiations for him to sign a contract with the New Zealand rugby union were being conducted.
A year is a long time in rugby, and with another season of Super Rugby in his kit-bag Sonny Bill has now decidedly passed Nonu as the best inside centre in New Zealand and, indeed, world rugby.
He has done this by transforming his game to the more traditional rugby inside back game of taking the ball up hard, passing wide rather than running when width needs to be given to the attack and only popping passes when the momentum of the movement calls for this to happen.
With his size, pace (quick enough once he winds up), muscularity, beautiful hands, magic passing skills, intensity, concentration, nous and determination Sonny Bill has turned into the champion player many believed he would become. There is no doubt that the Chiefs built their Super Rugby championship victory around his dominance on attack and defence in the middle of the field.
During the Tests against Ireland, Sonny Bill showed that his super Super Rugby play was not a flash in the pan. As Will Genia pointed out yesterday, Sonny Bill is now an ‘80 minute’ impact player.
SANZAR has released some statistics about the 2012 Super Rugby season which make the point that play is continuing to be sped up with fewer kicks per game, with 58 per cent of all penalties at the tackle going to the attacking side and the ball in play for 34 minutes on average.
Before rugby league tragics start to accuse rugby of being boring because of this statistic, just be aware that the ball is in play and contestable in league for about the same period of play.
Anyway, the lesson from the SANZAR statistics is that the ‘two most successful attacking sides’ made the Super Rugby final. According to SANZAR’s game manager Lyndon Bray, “Both the Chiefs and the Sharks headed the table in terms of clean breaks and offloads.”
Interestingly, the team with the best defensive record “by a large margin” according to Bray, the Stormers, finished highest on the ladder in the regular season but were beaten in the semi-final by a more successful attacking team.
I am sure these statistics have had a bearing on Robbie Deans’ determination for the Wallabies to take the game in a positive manner to the All Blacks on Saturday night.
And, undoubtedly, in Hansen’s determination to ensure that for two more Tests, at least, the All Blacks get the benefit of the best of Sonny Bill on a rugby field, a best that is now in the great category.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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