The Sonny Bill Williams knockers have been deadly quiet of late. The big bloke has silenced them with stunning week-in-week-out performances for the Crusaders, his switch from rugby league forward to rugby inside-centre nothing short of incredible.
Last night at Nelson, Williams was man-of-the-match material in the Crusaders 36-8 win over the Sharks to clinch a Super 15 semi berth.
The 10th semi in succession, and 13th overall, continuing the mighty track record of the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history with seven titles from 16 attempts.
The only times the Crusaders have failed to qualify were the first two years – 1996 (12th), and 1997 (seventh) – and 2001 (10th), when the tournament was Super 12.
But qualifying this year has been something right out of the performance box.
The tragic earthquakes that have devastated their home town Christchurch, have also severely damaged their home ground AMI Stadium, forcing the Crusaders to play all their games away from home.
It’s been an Herculean effort to be constantly on the road, and only lose four games all tournament.
Now they have to saddle up for another long flight to Cape Town to meet the Stormers that finished on top of the South African Conference – a huge ask.
And there’s still no Richie McCaw, the Crusaders’ inspirational skipper, and world-class flanker, who is dogged by a foot injury.
But Kieran Read has done a first-class captaincy job in McCaw’s absence, and there’s no doubt he’ll do the same in Cape Town.
Read’s not the only one lifting the side. There have been three other members of the red-and-black brigade to step up with plenty of inspiration, and go forward – Dan Carter, Matt Todd, and Sonny Bill.
Carter, all class, and a super boot to keep the Crusaders in touch in this era of penalty, after penalty.
The 23-year-old Todd is only on standby for McCaw, but he would be an automatic selection in any one of the other 14 franchises. He’s fast, reads the game in advance, is a solid defender, a ball-runner, and he’s going to be around creating havoc for a long time.
And Sonny Bill.
When he controversially walked out of the Bulldogs in 2008, he was pilloried across the board by the rugby league fraternity that stopped just short of hanging him at dawn.
Second-rower Sonny Bill weathered the storm, signed with Toulon to play rugby for the first time, and made an immediate impact as an inside-centre – a rare switch.
Last year he signed with the NZRU in a bid to play in this year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Barring injury, he’ll romp it in, he’s already there.
Williams is a big unit – 191cm (6ft 3), and 108kgs – and he’s used it all to become only the second New Zealander to switch from a Kiwi league international to All Black since Karl Ifwerson in the 1920s.
But he’s not just big and fast, he has a football brain, and the incredible ability to off-load under intense pressure.
The Stormers already know at first hand his multi-qualities.
In round 12, the injury-hit Crusaders, with McCaw and Dan Carter among them, won 20-14 in Cape Town, with Williams turning in a blinder to take command of the mid-field.
That was a gutsy win by the Crusaders, and they are a better team now.
They will prove that early Sunday morning (0100 AEST) when Carter’s on duty, with Read, Todd, and Williams to continue to strut their inspirational stuff to clinch a berth in the final with the table-topping Reds who will account for the Blues in the other semi at what will be a chockers Suncorp of around 51,000.
The cream has surfaced with the top four teams after the regulation rounds making the semis.