England v New Zealand, Twickenham, November 6
Sonny Bill on steep learning curve
November 1, 2010
New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams poses in London ahead of his side's clash with England at Twickenham © Getty Images
The Sonny Bill Williams show has hit London with the rising star of New Zealand rugby almost bemused to discover himself on a par with Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw as the most recognisable All Blacks on tour.
The 25-year-old former Kiwis rugby league international has only played seven provincial matches for Canterbury since returning home to New Zealand in search of All Blacks honours but he could cap a rapid rise to the top against England at Twickenham on Saturday. The personable Williams fronted an All Blacks media session for the first time today although that is not necessarily an indication he will be among the 22-man squad this weekend.
Williams finds himself in a unique position among the 29-strong tour party. He and Hika Elliot are the only uncapped members - the Hawke's Bay hooker was not required against the Wallabies in Hong Kong last weekend - but it is Williams who has captured the imagination since returning home from France in June where he spent two seasons with Toulon after a controversial switch from the 13-man code.
Speculation has been rife about when the 108kg ball-playing behemoth will be unleashed on a northern hemisphere backline. Williams was suitably vague today when asked if Twickenham might be the opportune moment. However, in one regard he was unequivocal - the Bledisloe Cup finale at Hong Kong Stadium last Saturday was never an option.
Williams was, and still is, assimilating to a team environment which is foreign regardless of his team-mates speaking the same language - unlike the commencement of his rugby education in the south of France in 2008.
"It's pretty intense. I've never experienced anything like this before," said Williams, a professional footballer since being signed by the National Rugby League's Bulldogs when a teenager. "The biggest difference to when I played at the top level in league is here you notice how different the games are. League's a pretty simple game. In rugby there a whole of lot set piece, scrum, back moves and such to cover."
Melbourne Storm and former New South Wales State of Origin coach Craig Bellamy gained an insight into what Williams is going through when invited to watch the All Blacks at work before they left for Hong Kong. "It was pretty funny," smiled Williams. "I was speaking to him after and he said if he tried to get the (Storm) boys to bring in their notepads and pens and have the amount of meetings we have he'd get shot. It's been a big learning curve for me. I just try and be a like sponge bro, hopefully I get my shot soon."
Williams wasn't the greatest scholar at Mt Albert Grammar and it some ways he feels he is reliving those difficult student days. "It's just like school. I go home, get that notepad out and jot things down. Last week was pretty tough, it was like a teething process but at the moment I'm feeling pretty confident with the all the moves and what we're trying to achieve on the field."
Assistant coach Wayne Smith, a former school teacher, is an obvious mentor while centre Ma'a Nonu - the man who wears the No.12 jersey Williams covets has graciously been a great source of guidance since the rugby rookie arrived wide-eyed at a pre-departure camp in Auckland. "Ma'a's really taken me under his wing on the finer points of what we're trying to achieve as All Blacks," he said.
Soothing words, much appreciated. "From the outside coming in I was probably a bit anxious to see what the boys were like. Everyone's been great, you ask a question, you get 10 answers."
Tana Umaga, Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk were willing tutors in the south of France, offering their insights on playing rugby at the highest level. And although they haven't conversed for a while, former Kiwis teammate Shontayne Hape is also an inspiration of sorts considering he has successfully made the transition from league to rugby.
Hape is expected to be named at second five-eighth for what would be his first test cap against his homeland, an achievement that impressed Williams no end. "A lot of league players have gone over to rugby and not made it. It was interesting to see when he came on the scene, he just killed it," Williams said.
While Hape is obviously off limits in the English camp, Williams hoped to catch up with Wilkinson now World Cup-winning pivot has again succumbed to injury. "He's a top bloke old Jonny. Hopefully we can have a coffee and he can show me his town," Williams said, making plans for Wednesday's players' day off.
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