England v New Zealand
Sonny Bill Williams starts outside Aaron Cruden
November 6, 2014
Sonny Bill Williams returned in style against the United States © Getty Images

Sonny Bill Williams has barged another door down in his remarkable sporting career, earning a starting spot in the All Blacks' team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday. Williams will start at inside centre, lining up outside Aaron Cruden in the strongly contested No.10 jersey. The former Chiefs team-mates are among four starting players retained from the side that demolished the United States 74-6 in Chicago. The others are fullback Israel Dagg and No.8 Kieran Read.

Williams was a blockbusting figure in that game, scoring two tries and proving he needed little time to adjust back to the 15-man code after two seasons in Australia's National Rugby League competition with Sydney Roosters.

Williams was preferred to No.12 Malakai Fekitoa for the biggest game of New Zealand's four-Test tour, with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen saying the rising Highlanders star had endured a heavy workload this year. Hansen also said that he wanted to see if Williams could build on his performance in Chicago.

"We think Sonny brings something pretty unique," Hansen said. "We've seen him against lesser opposition so we need to see him against quality opposition. If he can do what he did the week before, it'd be good."

Williams has thrived with the All Blacks environment since earning his rapid international recall, less than a month after finishing at the Roosters. Hansen says the gifted athlete is in his rightful sport after having felt duty-bound to sign his Roosters contract in 2012, honouring a handshake agreement. "His love is rugby," Hansen said. "He really loves the game and he feels he has more freedom playing it. He's got the chance to express himself across the park."

Williams beat a game-high six defenders and made three clean breaks, admittedly against a wafer-thin defensive line, but he made only one trademark offload as New Zealand threw 32. And he said earlier in the week that he had remembered the lesson drummed into him by Hansen two years ago."The opportunity's usually there but it's about picking it and making the right decision," Williams said. "When it's on, I back myself to pass it; but when it's not, it's not."

Hansen said that Cruden warranted another start inside Williams, after impressing in Chicago, while Beauden Barrett's speed made him a potent bench force. He said that injury-prone Dan Carter had impressed in 30 late minutes against the US, given his limited appearances this year, but he said the fly-half had not played enough to warrant facing the powerful English threat.

There were few other surprises in the experienced squad.

Jerome Kaino was recalled at blindside flank after missing the past two Tests with foot bruising, with Liam Messam moving to the reserves bench. Sam Cane wasn't considered for the bench after injuring his back at training on Tuesday, but the flanker expects to be fit for consideration to play Scotland the week afterwards.

Ben Smith gets held back, New Zealand v England, 3rd Test, Hamilton, June 21, 2014
Ben Smith starred against England in New Zealand during June © Getty Images

Ben Smith was also recalled, ready to "rock and roll", after missing the tourists' past two months to recharge. Smith was a regular starter on the right wing, but All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said in London that he was showing signs of fatigue at the end of the Rugby Championship so the selectors rested him from the narrow Bledisloe Cup win over Australia in Brisbane and the tour-opening thrashing of the United States in Chicago.

Smith lost 5kg in his previous appearance, the loss to South Africa in Johannesburg, where he carried an illness into the match after another heavy Super Rugby workload with the Highlanders and successive 80-minute efforts in New Zealand's first nine Tests of the year. Last year, he also barely missed a minute of the Super Rugby and Test programs. "He's a high-volume player and we felt we had to draw a line in the sand," Foster said, noting that Smith had shown no signs of fatigue when the All Blacks trained earlier in the week. "He was still capable of playing, but he wasn't going to be playing at the level that we know he can because he was run down."

All Blacks: Israel Dagg; Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liam Messam, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.


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