Everything Sonny as All Blacks refuse to look back

‘I didn’t even watch’ the defeat to France in 2007, says New Zealand centre Williams

New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams meets the media in Swansea. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams meets the media in Swansea. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

 

Search any old rugby man’s bookshelves and Wallace Reyburn’s The Unsmiling Giants will be found. It’s an account of the unbeaten All Blacks tour of Canada, France and Britain in 1967, when their all-conquering record was marred only by a 3-3 draw with East Wales in Cardiff Arms Park.

Colin Meads was among those All Blacks, and until Richie McCaw’s superhuman sustainability, Pinetree was considered the greatest of them all. A simple enough text, the book reveals the hard edge of those Maori men and farmers of Scottish Presbyterian descent.

That edge remains cutting nowadays, but the brand has most certainly changed.

Sonny Bill Williams came before us on the Swansea University campus. Others, such as Dan Carter and McCaw’s heir apparent, Sam Cane, came after, but Sonny Bill sells more than any of the starting XV.

Also, his rugby union education began at Toulon under the watchful, almost mournful, blue-steel gaze of Philippe Saint-André.

But first some housekeeping. “I was waiting for that question,” said assistant coach Ian Foster when a French journalist asked about the corresponding game at the same venue eight years ago. Only difference is that the All Blacks will never wear grey again.

“No, for us it is about the here and the now,” said Foster, mantra-like. “Our goal for the last six months has been to be ready for Saturday. We haven’t known who our opponent is and, to be quite frank, we haven’t really cared.”

That wasn’t going to quell the fourth estate. SBW was still a league phenomenon in 2007, tearing up the National Rugby League (NRL) for the Bulldogs, but within a year he caused what was portrayed as a national scandal (in Australia anyway) when walking away from a lucrative league contract to take up a presumably even more lucrative union contract offered by Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

“Aw, I didn’t even watch the game,” said Williams. “I was actually playing rugby league still. I just know the week after, when I flew back into New Zealand, it was a pretty sad time. But, you know, the past is the past and the future is the future.”

Not very insightful, but true.

“No matter what anyone says this week, it is going to be a great game with an awesome atmosphere,” he added. “Just, yeah, everyone make sure they watch ’cause it’s going to be awesome entertainment!”

He burst out laughing and snapper clicking went into overdrive. The Sonny Bill shot.

When Foster confirmed that the New Zealand captain had taken full part in that morning’s training session, SBW interjected: “Richie’s up!”

The room laughed with him again. It’s easy to understand why. He looks like a movie star, the charisma is there and so is a skill set gifted by the rugby gods.

He has revolutionised rugby union, changing the role of inside centre forever. What’s even more astonishing is the performances of Ma’a Nonu these past four years to keep the number-12 jersey off Sonny Bill’s back.

The Williams journey is well told. Flip-flopping from league to union twice now, he only came home to New Zealand after two years learning the nuances of his position from the best teachers imaginable.

Crucially, in contrast with Sam Burgess, this occurred away from the glare of Test match rugby.

“I was fortunate enough to play with Jonny Wilkinson and Tana Umaga, but I was actually coached by Philippe Saint-André,” Williams said. “He was an awesome coach, really brought out the best in me, gave me that confidence to start those ambitions to go back to New Zealand and have a crack at the All Black jersey.”

And so he modernised the second-five-eighth role with an offloading game that overnight had teenagers from Invercargill to Donnybrook flinging no-look side passes in contact.

“When I first started I wanted to play in the forwards, but through injury at Toulon I ended up standing in the backs, and it went from there,” he said. “But I was lucky to be coached not just by Tana, but Philippe too. I think he’s a type of coach who knows each individual in his side and tries to make them play to the best of their ability.”

There followed the smiling Cane and “Herman Munster” (aka Brodie Retallick). Both were happy because they were doing media with Dan Carter. So they weren’t really doing media at all, just sitting there looking unpretty.

Aged just 23 and 24, this pair are well on the way to becoming great All Blacks, but the 2007 questions are lost on them.

“There’s about three players who were out on that field,” said Carter of himself, McCaw and Tony Woodcock, who is staying with the squad this week despite a career-ending hamstring tear. “It’s a new team. We are not looking in the past. We have moved on from that.”

But it has ingrained itself in New Zealand’s rugby psyche, hasn’t it Dan? “Yeah, probably the public and the media, but in the team it is not something we have thought about.”

Not even late at night? Carter’s haunted stare comes easily to mind, seeing him sit helplessly alongside Byron Kelleher as Thierry Dusatoir reached his 38th tackle.

“I don’t really remember much about it,” Retallick drolled in his humorous manner. “Not sure, yeah, I don’t know, can’t recall a hell of a lot.”

“I can remember it happening,” went Cane, “but like Brodie said, I think I might have been 15. I was playing first XV footie and having fun with my mates. We were just starting to go to our first parties.”

Laughter fills the room once more. No real baggage here. Different time, different Black expressions. Same French though, same patch of land where East Wales scraped that draw, and where Freddie Michalak hollowed through the grey line.

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