SBW: Fac­ing my haters

Wil­liams at­tempt­ing to meet ex­pec­ta­tions, writes Gre­gor Paul

Weekend Herald - - Front Page -

Sonny Bill Wil­liams has never known a time when the ma­jor­ity of the New Zealand pub­lic has been on his side. The best pe­riod he’s en­joyed came at the 2015 World Cup, when maybe there was a 50:50 split, with half the coun­try mar­vel­ling at the im­pact he had com­ing off the bench in that tour­na­ment and the other half still re­fus­ing to see him as any­thing other than the un­wanted child from a messy di­vorce with the NRL. Three years on, and the num­bers have slid. Those who have never been keen have be­come in­creas­ingly stri­dent, an­gry even, won­der­ing why it is that the All Blacks se­lec­tors have stuck with a player who hasn’t done much this year, not overtly at least, to re­ward that faith.

There’s no great sur­prise that those who have never warmed to Wil­liams are us­ing his cur­rent lack of im­pact as a weapon against him. The haters have never needed an ex­cuse and now they have one. They have the con­vic­tion of zealots fu­elled with a sense of right­eous­ness.

But no mat­ter their pas­sion, the long-term anti-Wil­liams bri­gade re­main as easy to ig­nore now as they al­ways have, as the minds of fa­nat­ics can rarely be turned and cer­tainly not with rea­son.

But what’s new and per­haps a creep­ing source of con­cern for Wil­liams and pos­si­bly the All Blacks coaches, is that those who have pre­vi­ously been neu­tral or sup­port­ive are now hav­ing their con­vic­tion tested. And some are wa­ver­ing, find­ing it hard to be sure that a panel which has taken plenty of se­lec­tion risks and mostly been proven right in the past, is on track with this one.

The ed­u­cated rugby fol­lower can un­der­stand the per­sis­tence with Wil­liams. He’s a big-ticket item — ex­plo­sive, de­struc­tive, in­flu­en­tial and ca­pa­ble of turn­ing a game with one of his mag­i­cal off­loads.

That he hasn’t de­liv­ered much of that in the last three tests can be at­trib­uted to his chronic lack of games this sea­son. He’s barely played and doesn’t have the con­fi­dence be­hind him that comes with time at the coal­face.

But le­niency can’t be ex­tended in­def­i­nitely and there needs to be some kind of re­turn on the Wil­liams in­vest­ment and ide­ally an in­stal­ment will be paid at Twick­en­ham.

It’s not just that the jersey de­mands a be­fit­ting per­for­mance, there is a con­cern even among the more open-minded that the ar­gu­ment about Wil­liams has changed.

An ob­jec­tion that was orig­i­nally founded on the cir­cum­stances in which Wil­liams con­verted to rugby and the per­cep­tions of him which grew around it has evolved to en­cap­su­late a wider au­di­ence who are won­der­ing whether he’s sim­ply lost his edge and is not the ath­lete or player he once was.

Wil­liams, who has be­come sig­nif­i­cantly more self-aware in re­cent years, or at least will­ing to demon­strate that he is, ac­cepts that the fer­ry­man needs to be paid.

But he’s got no doubts about his abil­ity to stump up.

“Ob­vi­ously I am not where I know I can play but I am mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion and I have got com­plete faith in my abil­ity,” he says.

“As long as I am mak­ing steps to­wards that goal, I am happy. For a lot of boys, they get to come back through club rugby, Mitre 10 rugby, but I have to come through the tough­est av­enue in test matches.

“That is not an ex­cuse from me. I know where I am at and I know where I can go and I am pretty pleased with how I am go­ing.”

To his mind, the trick to hav­ing the in­flu­ence he wants is to strike the right bal­ance. This has

per­haps been the dif­fi­culty he’s had for much of his ca­reer — know­ing when and how of­ten to play his trump card of the off­load.

There have been games when he’s hit the sweet spot and the All Blacks have flowed with a dy­namic force as a re­sult. And there have been other games where he’s been anony­mous or con­spic­u­ous by his com­pound er­rors.

“Based on the last few games, Ar­gentina and South Africa, I didn’t fire enough shots, and then against Aus­tralia, I prob­a­bly fired a bit too many,” he says.

“But the thing I liked about Aus­tralia was the in­tent. And when I have in­tent like that, when I have that mind­set, spe­cial things can hap­pen. I just have to be pa­tient.

“With me, I un­der­stand there comes a lot more, I guess, pres­sure, as peo­ple have a lot more eyes on me be­cause of the per­son I am and the fol­low­ing I have.

“I am grate­ful for that, but at times, I know I need to move those dis­trac­tions to one side and fo­cus on my­self do­ing what I do.”

Even his most ar­dent crit­ics must con­cede that it can’t be easy to live with the scru­tiny with which Wil­liams does, and yet how­ever in­tense, un­fair and in­tru­sive that ex­ter­nal prob­ing be­comes, he says it doesn’t get close to match­ing his self-gen­er­ated ex­pec­ta­tions.

“I have al­ways had high ex­pec­ta­tions of my­self be­cause I know what I can bring.

“The big­gest thing for me is to be gen­tle with my­self be­cause the pres­sure I put on my­self is a lot more than the pres­sure any­one else puts on me.

“I think it is al­ready hap­pen­ing, that my game is start­ing to click. But be­cause of the level I know I can play, as soon as I drop one ball, or make one bad pass, it [in­ter­nal pres­sure] is am­pli­fied.

“So it is about be­ing gen­tle with my­self, real with my­self, and not wor­ry­ing about the ex­ter­nal fac­tors or pres­sures.”

It’s not that he’s pin­ning all his hopes on the in­ten­sity of the oc­ca­sion this week­end to kick-start him back to his best form, but Twick­en­ham does have a spe­cial place in Wil­liams’ heart.

It was the ground on which he made his test de­but, in 2010 along­side Ma’a Nonu. In­ter­est­ingly he was at cen­tre that day, be­fore com­ing back five years later to play in the World Cup fi­nal with the same com­bi­na­tion, but swapped po­si­tions.

Play­ing Eng­land on their home patch with the whole world watch­ing seems the per­fect op­por­tu­nity rather than a last chance for Wil­liams to pro­vide that re­minder of his class that he so des­per­ately needs.

If the se­lec­tors have kept their faith, there is no rea­son to doubt them — their track record de­serves as much.

“Our pa­tience [with Wil­liams] is not driven on his back­ground as an ath­lete,” says All Blacks as­sis­tant coach Ian Foster. “It is based more on how we see play­ers per­form at train­ing. When we look at the phys­i­cal na­ture of the game and the way they are train­ing, some­times things are go­ing re­ally well off the park and it hasn’t quite gelled to the ex­tent they want on the park.

“Some­times play­ers can be deemed to have had a quiet game but in ac­tual fact they just haven’t had a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to show what they are good at.

“We have had var­i­ous play­ers who have been in­jured this year and have come back with vary­ing de­grees of ac­cu­racy in their game. Some have taken a bit longer to get there, but as long as we are see­ing im­prove­ments in train­ing and the at­ti­tude is good, we will keep mak­ing de­ci­sions as we make them.”

The in­fer­ence from Foster is that Wil­liams maybe just needs some­thing to ig­nite him to­mor­row to con­vert what they are see­ing at train­ing into a mem­o­rable test match per­for­mance.

It might just take one mir­a­cle pass or crush­ing tackle for the con­fi­dence to re­turn and for Wil­liams to elim­i­nate doubt about his shelf-life and readi­ness to still be a force at this level.

“The more min­utes I have and pa­tience I have and the men­tal ap­proach I have to footy, things will click,” he says.

“I am keen to work hard and put my hand up for se­lec­tion ev­ery week, which is all I can do.”

Photo / Photosport

Sonny Bill Wil­liams none of his crit­ics can match the pres­sure he puts him­self un­der.

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