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Rugby World: What SBW owes to Mundine and Wilkinson, McMahon out of Japan clash, Faf's woe

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Editor
13th October, 2021
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Welcome to Rugby World, a new weekly column looking at issues and stories from home and abroad.

Sonny shining

Sonny Bill Williams is everywhere right now. A permanent fixture of Stan Sport’s post-match punditry, he didn’t awlays sparkle, but did deliver the best interview moment of The Rugby Championship with that heart-felt exchange with Quade Cooper after his mate’s penalty kick winner against the Springboks.

His punditry lacks the incisiveness of a Morgan Turinui or the arched eye of Andrew Mehrtens, but few can match him for emotion when the topic moves him.

In the past few weeks, SBW has been on the interview circuit promoting his new book You Can’t Stop the Sun From Shining and his latest, with Donald McRae in the Guardian, is perhaps the most enlightening, and emotional.

Williams opens up about the shyness he felt early in his career – which is sometimes still evident in his low key and thoughtful manner on set with Stan. There are also insights into two athletes who he credits for making his playing career a success – controversial rugby league player turned boxer, Anthony Mundine, and cleanskin England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson.

“I’ve felt ecstatic, with pain and sadness too, some tears,” Williams says in the interview.

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“But I always say a better man makes a better athlete. People might think that’s some fairytale cliche but the better man knows himself much more truthfully. He knows the reason why he is strong in some things and weak in others.

“That’s why I’m still a work in progress. It’s been my life – making mistakes and getting better. I hang my hat on the hard work, the strength to learn from my failures and the strength to carry on.”

He says his shyness was “a daily struggle, always. “It was like fighting demons every day. Everyone has their own mental struggles and those were mine. I always knew I could play, and I backed my ability, but I was so different off the field.

“You’re seen as a leader in the team because you’re one of the best players. Of course you should be leading and talking but, man, the coach would ask me a question in the dressing room and … boof!

“I would think: ‘Just get me on the field, because that’s where I feel at ease, that’s where I can express myself with my tackling or making a break or flash off-load.’

“That stuff was born in the back yard where, as little Island [Polynesian] kids, we played with freedom because you haven’t got much. But when you play football, the flash comes out, the quickstep. As Islanders we’re very physically strong and so you’re looking to match each other’s toughness and skill. From the outside it looked like: ‘Who does this guy think he is? He’s got all the confidence.’ But it was a constant struggle.”

Williams spoke candidly about his drink-driving problems and how sport fails to adequately deal with its problem players.

“We’re still in a place like that today,” Williams said. “In professional sports there’s so much talk about help at your fingertips from nutrition to mental health. But all we’re doing in sport is putting a plaster that gives temporary cover to our hurt on the inside.

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“I would make a big mistake, like drink-driving, and I’m remorseful. I really need help but as soon as I start playing well again it’s like: ‘He’s reborn, he’s back!’ But my life is still full of trouble. I was playing some of the best footie I ever played, and living the so-called dream, but deep down I was very unhappy.”

In 2008 SBW, quit the NRL Bulldogs for a fresh start in French rugby. Branded a traitor and out of pocket by $1 million, he was saved by the generosity of Mundine and others.

In Toulon, he struck up a close relationship played with Wilkinson, England’s meticulous goal kicking star of the 2003 RWC triumph, who shared Sonny’s shyness.

“I couldn’t have dreamt of all the help that Jonny gave me,” Williams says. “I came to France carrying a million-dollar debt, full of doubt, but I just jumped on that train, playing a game I had never played before, and it was humbling.

“I don’t know if I would have played for the All Blacks if not for Jonny. He really gave me that kickstart of believing in myself as a rugby player. After the first couple of days I was thinking: ‘Man, what a good person he is.’ And I was in awe when I saw how he operated. His work ethic was inspiring.”

McMahon, Kerevi to miss Japan Test

Dave Rennie will be without Sean McMahon and Samu Kerevi for the Japan Test this month, but is still hopeful of Quade Cooper being released by his Japanese employers.

Rennie told the Sydney Morning Herald McMahon flew home to Japan to spend time with his family after making his return from a four-year exile against Argentina. He is out of the match on Saturday week due to COVID-19 bubble issues.

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“Sean went home to family a couple of days after the game, so he’s got to quarantine,” Rennie told the Herald.

“We’re in a bubble for 10 days to allow us to prepare, and then play. People outside that bubble can’t [play].

Suntory Sungoliath, who employ Kerevi and McMahon, and Kintetsu Liners, who employ Cooper are not required to release the players because the game is outside the international window.

Kerevi was granted permission, although the situation changed when he was injured against Argentina.

Rennie is still hopeful of having Cooper available.

Faf could be out ‘for months’

Faf De Klerk is in doubt for South Africa’s spring tour Tests, according to his English club’s director of rugby.

Alex Sanderson, of Sale, has confirmed De Klerk has undergone scans on the hip he damaged in the second Test against the British & Irish Lions. He went on to play all four Tests against the Wallabies and All Blacks.

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However, his hip pain has become a significant issue and Sanderson said: “Faf is currently undergoing assessment for his hip flexor injury, which was sustained in the Lions Test and has become more severe recently but we need to get clarity on that.

“There are concerns that it could be months but we need confirmation. We have to wait for the right assessments, otherwise it is scaremongering.

“We have had all the scans sent over. They are with the consultant in London right now and we have all his previous reports and they want to see it all before they make a decision about rehab, surgery or crack on. Those are three options.

“I am speculating as a rugby coach and it is frustrating when someone comes back [from international duty] injured but surely there can’t be any coaches or organisations out there that set out to deliberately injure people. I don’t believe that is the case.”

Around the grounds

– Eddie Jones is clear to choose unvaccinated players for England’s northern winter Tests, including next month’s battle against the Wallabies. While the RFU are encouraging players to have jabs — as part of a drive towards an 85 per cent vaccination target in the sport in England — it is understood that a minority are reluctant and their stance will not prevent them from being picked by Jones. It is reported that a rigorous testing regime will safeguard fixtures.

– English Premiership club Wasps have asked England’s rugby authorities to review the wearing of “faux Native American headdresses’’ by Exeter Chiefs fans. The headdresses have been worn since Exeter rebranded as the Chiefs in 1999, but Wasps believe they have “the potential to cause offence”.

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– Rugby administrator Mark Evans, a former CEO in rugby union and league with Saracens, Harlequins and Melbourne Storm, has expressed fears for the future of the Welsh Rugby Union over rising debt.

The WRU took a revenue hit of $40 million and saw their net debt rise back above $185 million for the financial year ending June 30, 2021. The loss was largely down to Test matches having to be played behind closed doors.

“I’m really worried about Wales as a rugby nation, I’ll be honest,” Evans told The Ruck podcast.

I’m worried about it for a whole host of reasons – partly to do with the structure, the funding, the politics and the player pathways and development.

“I’m casting around for reasons to be cheerful and I’m really struggling. At the minute, it just looks all over the place.

“From friends down there – and I don’t claim to know the Welsh scene intimately these days – there doesn’t seem to be any real strategy behind it that everyone can agree on.

“In a small country – and Wales sometimes doesn’t recognise what a small country it is economically as much as anything – you’ve all got to be on the same page right through the whole sport.

“If you’re not – and Welsh rugby is renowned for its politicking – then you’re not going to be very successful.”

The good news for Wales is that their October 31 match against the All Blacks will be a sell out. The bad news? Wales coach Wayne Pivac will have up to 21 frontline players unavailable because it falls outside the window where clubs have to release players.

– Male rugby players will be allowed to join their female counterparts in wearing tights or leggings during matches. Concerns over abrasions from artificial turfs have seen World Rugby change their laws to allow all players to wear them for safety reasons.

– Liam Squire, who played 23 times for the All Blacks, has retired aged 30 after a series of injuries.
Squire missed the bulk of this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa after a recurring knee injury resurfaced, ruling him out for the season after just two outings and he retires on medical advice.

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