England v New Zealand, Twickenham, November 6
Sonny Bill grateful for Wilko wisdom
November 5, 2010
Sonny Bill Williams rose to prominence in the 15-man code with Toulon in the south of France © Getty Images
All Blacks rising star Sonny Bill Williams has hailed England fly-half as huge influence on his burgeoning union career.
A continuation of Wilkinson's medical misadventures ensures the veteran No.10 is again excused international duty against the All Blacks. However, his class and composure could yet be reflected in the debut of an unlikely contemporary - Williams doubts his Test rugby ambitions would have reached fruition at Wilkinson's domain without the Englishman's wise and gracious counsel.
The public school educated Wilkinson and Williams - all smiles, swagger and south Auckland street cred - seem the oddest of confidantes. Yet, after joining the ranks of rugby mercenaries at Toulon, a bond developed that strengthens by the day.
Tana Umaga was undoubtedly crucial in easing Williams' introduction to French rugby after he abandoned the National Rugby League in 2008 - a friendly and familiar face in a totally foreign environment. But Wilkinson's analytical mind helped demystify a midfield back's role in rugby as opposed to a second rower's in league.
And when Williams first season is Toulon was racked by injury, it also helped Wilkinson was available as a voice of reason though those frustrating rehabs. "After the injuries in my first season (in Toulon) I was wondering if I could cut it," said Williams, after being named at centre for the All Blacks first leg of their Grand Slam attempt.
"Just being around him, pretty much every day, gave me a lot more confidence in my ability, especially at 12. Jonny really helped me out with my core skills."
While Williams was grateful for Wilkinson's mental and technical assistance, Mike Tindall might not be as enamoured with his long-standing international team-mate. Tindall and England's own converted Kiwis international Shontayne Hape confront the ominous task of containing Williams and established inside centre Ma'a Nonu.
The English midfield mirrors their counterparts in one other respect Tindall is the Nonu-esque old pro with 63 caps -- Hape only made his debut against the Wallabies in June. Hape has been on a crash course with England's battering ram since he successfully crossed codes at the end of 2008; Nonu has adopted a similar role with Williams since the pre-departure camp in Auckland.
"Ma'a's been awesome. He's taken a lot of pressure off me by being so talkative and helping me out."
Williams boiled down his interaction with the 52-test veteran to one pertinent piece of advice. "He just said to relax, that's probably it," Williams said. "When you come into a new environment you want to prove yourself to your new teammates. He gives me confidence saying 'You know you've been in big games before, you know what to expect'."
Williams was expected to start his test career in Nonu's position - he played all but one of his seven Canterbury games in the No.12 shirt. Outside centre, though, is hardly out of left field for the 25-year-old.
"When I first went over to Toulon I was playing the majority of it at outside centre. It was a lot easier than 12. I've got no problem moving out one."
Wilkinson, meanwhile, acknowledged he might have helped create a monster. "I think he will go brilliantly. His strength is his strength - his ability to keep the ball alive, his physicality, his ball movement and game awareness in space and people around him. I've not seen the likes of him before. He gets hurt, but never seems to go backwards."
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