SBW: Slow, bat­tling and look­ing wob­bly

Herald on Sunday - - IN OTHER NEWS - Paul Lewis paul.lewis@nzme.co.nz

It has been qui­etly over­looked in the eu­pho­ria of that come­back against the Spring­boks but there were a few All Blacks who emerged from that test with a cou­ple of ques­tion marks as op­posed to ex­cla­ma­tion points.

Prin­ci­pal among them was Sonny Bill Wil­liams. Sure, it was only his sec­ond test back af­ter a long in­jury break but he looked well off the pace. Not only that, he missed tack­les.

Now 33, SBW is look­ing a bit SBW (slow, bat­tling and wob­bly). In April, when he’d come into Su­per Rugby af­ter an­other in­jury break, I wrote: “Wil­liams has been wor­ried by in­jury so far this Su­per Rugby sea­son and has looked vul­ner­a­ble (he’s been shown up for pace a time or two) and er­ror-prone.

“There’s noth­ing too un­usual in that. Old SBW of­ten takes a while to get up to full gal­lop; he is as fit as a rat and there is no doubt­ing his strength of pur­pose. Even at 34 [his age at the time of the next Cup], he will likely still be a force.”

There’s no doubt Wil­liams will be in the 51 to go to Ja­pan and Europe; he de­serves at least the chance to get his game right in the com­ing test matches and to dust off one of the All Blacks’ sharpest weapons — his off­loads.

But you do won­der if he and some of the oth­ers named here will be in the 31 to go back to Ja­pan for the World Cup. With the likes of Ryan Crotty, An­ton Lien­art-Brown, Jack Good­hue and Ngani Laumape around, most of whom can play 12 or 13, there is a chance SBW could be a high-pro­file ca­su­al­ties.

That’s par­tic­u­larly so given the rush de­fence suc­cess­fully em­ployed by the Lions last year and the Boks in Pre­to­ria. SBW has looked a bit ex­posed when his space is cut down. He also doesn’t have the kick­ing game for the lit­tle dinks and donks be­hind the rush de­fence (although no one in the All Blacks did at Lof­tus Vers­feld, with those tac­tics usu­ally just giv­ing the ball back to the South Africans).

I tend to think SBW will still go to the World Cup even if most of his par­tic­i­pa­tion is off the bench, when those off­loads could cause havoc in the last quar­ter of the game. But those missed tack­les jarred — he has al­ways been a telling de­fender, although you get the feel­ing the need to tackle lower to dodge yel­low (and red) cards may be cramp­ing his ef­fec­tive­ness. Old dog, new tricks?

Next up: Prop Tim Perry. Highly un­likely to go ahead of the many class props around now any­way. He is a de­cent scrum­mager but that missed tackle on Siya Kolisi for the Spring­boks when Damien de Al­lende scored was glar­ing.

It may come down to in­juries and Perry will be there or there­abouts but if they take five props to the World Cup, he will be bat­tling to stay ahead of the likes of Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu­un­gafasi and the re­turn­ing Nepo Laulala. It may even be, af­ter that tackle, An­gus Ta’avao could move ahead of him now.

Shan­non Frizell be­gan his All Black ca­reer with a hiss and roar but has now had two pretty quiet test matches in a row.

Waisake Na­holo didn’t look all that flash un­der the high ball against the Boks, as some­times hap­pens with him. It will have been noted by World Cup coaches ev­ery­where.

His at­tack­ing qual­i­ties are many and var­ied but, as this col­umn has pointed out al­ready this sea­son, if the All Blacks are to guard against Beau­den Bar­rett’s off days with the boot, it may in­volve Ben Smith shift­ing to the wing and an­other po­ten­tial goal­kicker at full­back.

Jordie Bar­rett seems best for that, or Damian McKen­zie. That would mean no room for Na­holo in the test 23, a shame as his value as an ex­tra loose for­ward in the turnover bat­tles is sig­nif­i­cant.

Fi­nally, it will be in­trigu­ing see­ing which open­side flankers will be in the All Blacks’ 51, with Sam Cane ruled out and the like­li­hood that Matt Todd will not be com­ing back from Ja­pan just yet.

Todd will be back in time for the World Cup next year but you get the feel­ing coach Steve Hansen will want to take a rookie or two away with Ardie Savea.

North Har­bour’s Dil­lon Hunt is every­one’s first choice af­ter his pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence on last year’s end-of-sea­son tour.

Auck­land’s Blake Gib­son is in­jured and po­ten­tial roughies in­clude Otago’s James Len­t­jes (although he, too, has been in­jured and may be ruled out), Auck­land’s Dal­ton Pa­pali’i, Can­ter­bury’s Tom Christie and Waikato’s Luke Ja­cob­son, a No 6 who seems to have the right skills for an open­side.

Photo / Photosport

Sonny Bill Wil­liams.

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