Sonny Bill Williams made his return to the All Blacks side on Saturday in the historic clash with USA at Chicago's Soldier Field. As New Zealand romped to a 74-6 victory, the code-hopping centre was inspired. We analyse his eye-catching performance.
In fact, having excelled in boxing as well as both codes of rugby, the 29 year-old can undoubtedly be classed as an extraordinary sportsman. There are few fresh superlatives to attach to his glittering, globe-trotting career. He possesses a universally acknowledged acronym, for goodness’ sake.
As such, a pair of replacement cameos for Counties Manukau in the ITM Cup was sufficient to convince Steve Hansen that Williams was ready to jump into another chapter. Merely one month after finishing his two-year stint as a Sydney Rooster, he returned to the New Zealand midfield on Saturday to face the USA in Chicago.
Williams shone in an inevitable thrashing and – without disrespecting the wholehearted hosts at all – it was fascinating to watch him pitted against mere mortals. While USA boasted a handful of Aviva Premiership regulars such as Chris Wyles and Samu Manoa, the All Blacks were rampant.
Just as every facet of Brian O’Driscoll’s brilliance was accentuated as he carved up midweek opposition of contrasting ability on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2013, it was very possible to plot the finer details of Williams’ devastating two-try display.
Amusingly, NBC’s American commentary team of Todd Harris and Brian Hightower, who did an excellent job of explaining proceedings to an unfamiliar audience, followed every name with the player’s dimensions – height and weight in feet and pounds. While Williams – 6’3”, 243 – is a mighty specimen, there was so much more than brawn on show.
Pending recovery from a corked thigh, Williams will be close to the match-day 23 to face England this weekend. Here is a chronological run-down of his attacking contributions as he pressed a compelling claim for involvement.
It took all of 45 seconds for him to burst into the spotlight, tearing onto a short pass from Jeremy Thrush to power through for a clean break:
There is nothing overly complicated about New Zealand’s shape from the ruck close to the right touchline and the way Williams picks a line is based on very basic skills. For a start, watch how far behind the gain-line he begins:
This depth allows him to build up pace and pick an angle between the two USA defenders circled in white. Fly-half Adam Siddall steps in to cover Thrush, leaving a gaping hole between himself and inside centre Andrew Suniula. Williams needs no second invitation.
What comes next is just as impressive. Having cut through, Williams stays on his feet and fights through the contact area in order to allow his support to catch up. Above all, this shows how rapidly he has adapted to rugby union and amended his mindset accordingly.
Of course, the laws of league means this would not be necessary because of the lack of breakdowns. This screenshot shows Williams is into a different mind-set though, scanning for teammates before taking the option of going to ground once he realises the ensuing ruck can be won:
Minutes after this run, hooker Nathan Harris opened the scoring with New Zealand’s first try. An encouraging period of USA attack followed, but then the All Blacks forced their way on top again. Launching into midfield from the tail of a lineout, Williams laid the foundations:
Uncomplicated carrying is a key part of centre play, and here Williams shows his willing to do that job. While he is upended in a strong challenge, note how many defenders are attracted to his run:
Three tacklers are needed in the primary line alone, starving the USA of personnel out wide on their left. Unsurprisingly, Cory Jane danced over on that flank from the very next phase.
Williams then went from indirect creator to scorer:
Ryan Crotty was outstanding at outside centre all afternoon and himself put forward credentials to partner stalwart Conrad Smith at Twickenham. His offload here is wonderful.
But, as discussed in last week’s piece on George North, passes out of contact are nothing without an accurate support line. Ever alive to attacking opportunity, Williams anticipates his fellow midfielder’s movements and fights through the covering defence to get to Crotty’s shoulder:At times, this game resembled an All Blacks training run. Minutes later, Williams and Crotty switched roles for another line-break:
Blaine Scully is as ballsy as backs come. Even so, Williams pirouettes out of his challenge with ease before linking up with Crotty using his free arm.
Why not take a closer look:
Again, this is a relatively simple principle. The ‘hit and spin’ is one of the first progressions of an Auckland grid taught to juniors. Once more though, Williams marries technical precision to power and intensity, making him so difficult to stop.
Onto try number two, which was at first glance a spectacular counter executed typically clinically by the tourists:
From TJ Perenara‘s quick lineout onwards, this looks extremely slick. That said, Williams must keep rudimentary ideas in mind. As Israel Dagg runs across the pitch, he treads water and retains width so the ball-carrier can advance ahead. That way, Williams becomes an option for the passer again.
Watch how he responds to Dagg’s line to capitalise on the space:
Once clear, Williams can showcase his prowess at beating defenders. His step to evade the covering Manoa is worth ogling at again:
We are at risk of listing Williams’ attributes now, but they were all in plain evidence, especially as the first half wore on and things got slightly stretched.
The following piece of distribution from Williams brought about more trouble for USA:
This initially may appear fairly nondescript. However, it provides a perfect lesson in drawing defenders and creating space. Isolating the moment Williams releases his pass to Kieran Read gives us a clear illustration:
The filled black line here represents Williams’ run, an arc that straightens up against the grain. We can see the effect this has from the white circle – American openside Scott LaValla turns his shoulders inwards and is committed to the tackle.
Only then does Williams let go of the ball. The timing, speed and accuracy of his pass is exquisite. LaValla is out of the game and Read is away. That completed a fine first half from an individual standpoint, but Williams did not let up into the second period.
Here, with New Zealand pressing just after the break, he poses problems from a straightforward switch with Aaron Cruden, exploding off that right foot again to leave prop Eric Fry on the turf:
Lastly, just prior to leaving the fray on the hour mark with a dead leg, Williams showed an ability to organise from first-receiver.
This is a skill that Stuart Lancaster values greatly within the England set-up, recognising that attacking structures are all the more dangerous when can be ‘two-sided’ – essentially loaded with a playmaker on both open- and blindside:
To nit-pick, the pass here off Williams’ left hand is not quite as strong as those off his right. Still, he cuts out the pod of forwards and plays in Cruden on a second wave, where the All Blacks are so dangerous.
Only Steve Hansen knows where Williams fits in his strategy to take down England on Saturday. Freakish Malakai Fekitoa will take some shifting from the starting line-up, for sure.
Clearly though, Williams’ attacking weapons are all polished and firing. Lancaster’s men will have learned nothing new about an old adversary and should be far better prepared to blunt him than the USA were. Of course, given Williams box-office attacking, that is far easier said than done.
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