Canon Rugby In Focus: Sonny Bill Williams is back – and so is the debate about his value to the All Blacks.
The feedback was fast and, often, furious.
“Sonny Bill Williams shouldn’t be picked for the World Cup,” Robert wrote. “He showed very little in that test apart from how poor his form is.”
Other’s asked what game I’d been watching to suggest Williams had shown his “potential value to the All Blacks” at the World Cup with his performance against South Africa in the 16-16 draw at Westpac Stadium.
“Williams routinely attracted three defenders and, when he can do that and produce one of his trademark offloads, the All Blacks are in business,” I wrote for allblacks.com.
It generated swift, polarised feedback.
For every Sam, who asked “what game did you watch?” there was a Zane who responded with a – “what did you watch?”.
“He was bloody good. Right in the thick of it. Didn’t help the All Blacks that the Boks were half a meter off side at every ruck,” Zane wrote.
In more than two decades covering sport I’ve never come across a Kiwi athlete who divides opinion quite like Williams does.
There have been other vociferous debates like those who thought Carlos Spencer should be picked ahead of Andrew Mehrtens, and more recently those who don’t rate Beauden Barrett – and the many who do.
Shaun Johnson carried the blame when the Warriors played poorly and lost.
Boxers David Tua and Joseph Parker seem to have two camps – those who think they are worthy heavyweights and the others who reckon they are pretenders, not contenders.
Jimmy Neesham also seems to cop a bit of flak but his performances for the Blackcaps, but the ODI cricket World Cup should have put an end to that.
There are the outspoken athletes, like Aussie tennis player Nick Kygrois, and the slightly mad, like Anthony Mundine, and the massively wealthy like Tiger Woods and Floyd Mayweather.
And there’s Israel Folau, but that’s a rabbit hole I’m not going down again (I hope).
But in little old New Zealand, Williams is the lightning rod for criticism, for the haters – as they are called in popular culture – to hate, and for those who love Williams to leap to his defence.
The official stats show that in his 58 minutes Williams made 11 carries, eight passes, hit the mark seven times for 88 percent accuracy, got over the gain line 55 per cent of the time and made all eight of his eight tackles. All of this from his first game (apart from a club match) in a long, long time.
Even mild criticism attracts attention.
Last week I wrote that Williams had to show his durability by not getting hurt in the test in Wellington, a point coach Steve Hansen has made a few times.
It’s a comment based on fact as he had played just 37 games in the four years leading into that rare start as Williams has lived up to the “chalky” nickname he had at the Crusaders, because he broke like a stick of chalk.
“You need to stop death riding my boy SBW,” the sports editor of newsroom.co.nz said in a text in response to my piece.
“He’s going to win us the World Cup, mark my words.”
I replied that he just needs to be a bit more robust.
“He’s like a Ferrari mate. You don’t go driving it on a potholed road on a wet day for no reason.”
The flip side of the SBW coin is not so polite. Williams attracts derision, scorn, loathing and dismissal like no other athlete I’ve known.
Some of this is historic. There are those who can’t get past his decision to walk out on the Bulldogs and others who are still livid at the flip flop that saw Tohu Harris dropped from the Kiwis 2013 World Cup squad a day after he was named in it.
Then there are those who hate him for being Muslim and others, I firmly believe, who are just racist.
Some don’t like him because of his success – he’s won two World Cups with the All Blacks, enjoyed success with the Chiefs and in league, and won the New Zealand heavyweight boxing title.
The overwhelming comments from his teammates and coaches is that Williams is the consummate professional and a good team man.
I have heard though, from a couple of senior All Blacks, that he does know how to capture attention, often at the expense of the team.
They point to his decision to stay away from the victory parade after the 2011 World Cup and how he gave his winner’s medal to a young lad after 2015 as examples of how he drags the spotlight back to him.
But those comments are few and far between from those who know him.
Publicly, Williams seldom puts a foot wrong. He engaged in a silly ventriloquist gag with Ali Williams during a media session at the 2011 World Cup that saw us at odds.
He and Williams were castigated by All Blacks management afterwards and, to his credit, Williams has been an easy man to deal with in the years since.
In Wellington on Saturday he did little wrong. He was strong with the ball in hand, taking it to the line and drawing in defenders. Had he been able to pop a pass under such pressure the All Blacks might have scored.
It was his pass that lead to Beauden Barrett’s break and Jack Goodhue’s try, and he was solid on defence.
The official stats show that in his 58 minutes Williams made 11 carries, eight passes, hit the mark seven times for 88 percent accuracy, got over the gain line 55 per cent of the time and made all eight of his eight tackles.
All of this from his first game (apart from a club match) in a long, long time.
But none of that matters to his critics.
While Ben Smith is being allowed time to re-find his form after a long break, Williams was meant to be perfect in his return.
He wasn’t. But he may be very good again.
The All Blacks coaches are banking on it. So long as he doesn’t get injured, Williams will go to the World Cup, his third.
He is likely to be used off the bench, in the final 30 or 20 minutes.
If he pops a few passes, sets up a try or two, as he did in the final four years ago, he could help the All Blacks win a third consecutive title.
It will be interesting to see the reaction.
You can take it to the bank that some won’t be happy. That’s just the way it is with Williams.