New Zealand Rugby
Sonny Bill happy back in black
NZPA's Mark Geenty
June 1, 2009
The media-magnet that is Sonny Bill Williams poses at the Sydney Football Stadium ahead of his Barbarians bow © Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams strolled in wearing his black Barbarians tracksuit and a slight look of trepidation. But there was no need for body armour or a flock of bouncers like his Sydney airport arrival -- unless you count former England internationals Martin Corry and Mike Catt who flanked him at the top table.
It was the former Kiwis league international's first Australian press conference since his infamous Bulldogs walkout in August last year; which prompted the slightly hysterical title of `most hated Australian' from a readers' poll in lads mag Zoo Weekly. After a deep breath and a sip of water, a relaxed Williams spoke of the positive public reception since his return from a season in Toulon, and his nerves and excitement about taking on the Wallabies on Saturday.
And, showing you can take the boy out of Auckland but not Auckland out of the boy, his sentences were dotted with "brother" and "cuz" rather than "monsieur". His aim for Saturday night, when he lines up alongside nine other New Zealanders including Justin Marshall, Luke McAlister, Jerry Collins, Chris Jack and Greg Somerville, is simple.
"I'm not saying I'm going to go out there and be a star. I'll just try to do the basics well and try to learn and not let Stirling Mortlock run through me," he said.
Williams, 23, knows plenty of attention will be on him at the Sydney Football Stadium after an indifferent start to the 15-man code with some flashes of brilliance, in a struggling team. He found it tough early on, but said playing at centre alongside former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga helped him later the season after an injury-plagued start.
He enjoyed the south of France, and recently signed on for another season. But he felt he had to prove himself in his first match back in Australia.
"Definitely, you're always going to have your critics. Me being a league player playing rugby, they're going to be at me again to see how I go. I'm going out there to try and have a strong game and show people I can play rugby."
Williams insisted trying to impress the All Blacks selectors was furthest from his mind. He met with assistant coach Wayne Smith in France recently, but said that was more by chance than design.
"He came over to see Dan Carter play and caught up with Tana Umaga. I just happened to see them having a coffee and just had a couple of words with him. In New Zealand they've got plenty of talent so they're not going to be knocking on my door to get back there any time soon."
But he wouldn't rule out linking up with the new Australian Super 15 franchise in 2011 or making himself available for Samoa at the next World Cup.
"Maybe, man, anything's possible at this stage."
He felt centre was his best position, but hoped to "move a bit closer to the action" as he learned more about rugby. Williams showed few ill-effects from his charity boxing bout against compatriot Gary "The Baboon" Gurr in Brisbane last Wednesday (a second-round knockout), and said he hadn't needed to duck any rotten fruit in Brisbane or Sydney.
"Surprisingly it's been really good just walking the streets. People have come up giving me their best wishes. It's been really good. Not like the doom and gloom the papers make out it is."
He insisted there were no hard feelings towards the Bulldogs, whom he left one year into a five-year deal, and said he'd been in touch with some of his former teammates including Reni Maitua who faces a uncertain future after a positive drugs test -- "I hope it works out for him".
"A few of the boys will come along (on Saturday). I don't want to say their names, they might get in trouble. I've spoken to a few of the boys and they're keen to come down and have a geezer. I still support the Bulldogs, even though I probably don't get on with the administration."
Fellow rugby league convert Timana Tahu says Williams will have a target on him when he trots out at the Sydney Football Stadium.
The double Kangaroos and Wallabies international was hopeful of being picked in coach Robbie Deans' 22 to be announced tomorrow, but admitted all the heat was on Williams in his first big rugby match in Australia.
"I think everyone wants to have a crack at Sonny Bill," Tahu said with a chuckle today. "All the press sees that, and he's put a target on his forehead, the big fella. He's a big boy and it's a big challenge for him more than it is for us, to prove to himself that he can play against the best which he'll be coming up against this week. If I get the chance I'll just be another bloke trying to get at him."
Williams joined his Barbarians teammates for the first time in Sydney today after they arrived on the early morning flight from London where they beat England 33-26 at Twickenham. Coach Dai Young, the former Wales and Lions prop, was unsure where Williams would slot in, but it seemed most likely he would oppose Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock in his preferred position of centre.
McAlister, who hopes to return to the All Blacks later this year, would play either first or second five-eighth, fitness permitting, Young said. He would still require a fitness test after he missed the England game due to hamstring and knee problems.