Sonny Bill, your time is up

Marlborough Express - - SPORT -

Sonny Bill Wil­liams is start­ing to look like a very ex­pen­sive mis­take. The old New­lands grounds has a buzz that makes any rugby player on the planet want to play and Sonny Bill wanted to play. The All Blacks were on the at­tack early on and Beau­den Bar­rett went in to play half­back.

Sonny Bill eyed up the pass as it left Bar­rett’s hands. He raised his hands to catch the ball and glanced away at the Spring­bok de­fend­ers. Only, a rugby ball is no re­specter of rep­u­ta­tion. It whis­tled through Sonny Bill’s hands and biffed him squarely on the fore­head. Sonny Bill is a hard man but guess who blinked first.

Sad to say that clown­ish mo­ment has been the story of Sonny Bill’s sea­son. He had a cou­ple of great mo­ments play­ing for the Blues against the Lions, but he is not the player of seven or even two years ago. Sonny

Bill has lost a yard of pace, which he could ill af­ford to lose, and he has lost some of the agility that used to al­low him to spin in the tackle.

Against South Africa he made tackle af­ter tackle, although he was never able to get into a front-on po­si­tion to make the kind of de­struc­tive tackle that de­fined him. He was al­ways grasp­ing at a man who was nearly past him. Sonny Bill made 23 tack­les in the match, an heroic ef­fort, but none of them made an im­pact.

The big­ger worry for Steve Hansen and Ian Foster is that Sonny Bill is mak­ing lit­tle im­pact on at­tack any more. Yes, there were a cou­ple of el­e­gant passes as the All Blacks ran out of de­fence. There was also a lovely long, flat pass to Dane Coles. But th­ese are the things you work on with Sonny Bill, they are not the rea­sons why you se­lect him.

He is there to cause havoc in mid­field. He is there to draw in de­fend­ers. He is there to make space for oth­ers. He is there to in­tim­i­date the op­po­si­tion. But South Africa looked at Sonny Bill as an op­por­tu­nity, rather than a threat. They felt that he was a turnover wait­ing to hap­pen.

And South Africa were right. Sonny Bill turned over four pieces of prime at­tack­ing pos­ses­sion in the first half. There was the ball that bounced off his bonce af­ter five min­utes. Then on 18 min­utes Crotty nearly scored off a well­timed cut­back ball. Sonny Bill, who had been a de­coy, de­cided to pick and go on South Africa’s line. A bad de­ci­sion and a bad body po­si­tion al­lowed Mal­colm Marx to win a penalty.

Ten min­utes later Sonny Bill straight­ened the line, but he didn’t break tack­les and his body shape was again poor. Same man, same re­sult. Marx came in and turned over pos­ses­sion.

Sonny Bill has lost that bit of zip that would take him half through the tack­ler. He has lost the agility that al­lowed him to turn and pop up the ball for his sup­port. In some ways it is a mir­a­cle he is still play­ing at all.

When he rup­tured his Achilles play­ing for New Zealand at the 2016

South Africa looked at Sonny Bill as an op­por­tu­nity, rather than a threat.

Olympics, many thought his ca­reer might be over. The sur­geon cer­tainly did not give much for his chances. It is a tes­ta­ment to SBW’s pro­fes­sion­al­ism and de­ter­mi­na­tion that he was able to do the re­hab to make him a top-level player again.

Ah, but is he? Steve Tew must be won­der­ing. New Zealand Rugby spent a lot of money on Wil­liams last June. It was money that prob­a­bly has­tened the de­par­ture of Aaron Cru­den and

Taw­era Kerr-Bar­low so SBW came at quite a price, a fig­ure that has been es­ti­mated at $2.5 mil­lion over three sea­sons.

Tew said: ’’This is an­other very im­por­tant mo­ment for New Zealand Rugby … we know our top play­ers have choices re­gard­ing where they play their footy and for him to sign a three-year deal with us shows he is truly mo­ti­vated and ex­cited about the op­por­tu­nity and chal­lenge of be­ing

re­mem­bered as a great All Black.

‘‘There is no doubt that he is a very spe­cial per­son. Since first sign­ing with New Zealand Rugby back in 2010, he has made a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact, not only on the field but off the field as well. He is a huge star with par­tic­u­larly our younger fans and has been an in­spi­ra­tion to a whole gen­er­a­tion of kids.’’

Hansen said: ’’It’s great news for New Zealand Rugby. He is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily gifted ath­lete. His recom­mit­ment will bring a sta­bil­ity to the mid­field and will al­low us to build a world-class cen­tre com­bi­na­tion.’’

All that may have been true un­til Sonny Bill blew out his an­kle, al­ways a risk in sign­ing on an older ath­lete. SBW now looks like a mar­ket­ing tool who is un­will­ing, for per­fectly jus­ti­fi­able eth­i­cal rea­sons, to even do all the mar­ket­ing, although I do won­der how he is pre­pared to black­ball BNZ and not AIG.

Wil­liams’s play­ing value looks sadly di­min­ished. It was he who threw away the ball that Nehe Mil­ner-Skud­der had to dive on, lead­ing to the wrecked shoul­der. Hard to blame Sonny Bill, but it did seem like col­lat­eral dam­age.

I sus­pect that Sonny Bill is now more val­ued for his pro­fes­sion­al­ism and the ex­am­ple he sets to the younger play­ers than for his ac­tual play­ing abil­ity. And it is hard to see that chang­ing. Now that Wayne Smith has moved on, and with an­other year on the clock, Sonny Bill is un­likely to get any bet­ter.

Surely it is time to look at pair­ing Ryan Crotty and Jack Good­hue on the Au­tumn tour. The All Blacks like a strong man at 12, but there are other ways to play the game.


South Africa’s Mal­colm Marx lines up Sonny Bill Wil­liams dur­ing the test in Cape Town at the week­end.

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