Sonny Bill Williams should have to prove himself at a reasonable level before being reinstated into the All Blacks setup.
A recent report by Gregor Paul of the New Zealand Herald suggested that he is in consideration for selection for the end-of-year tour, as the midfield back is set to return to Rugby Union later in the year. This is clearly not a done deal though, as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen still appears unsure as to whether picking the superstar would be the right move.
Ultimately there should be no reservations regarding Williams’ selection as long as he has proven himself capable of playing the game once more.
Having signed with Counties Manukau for the ITM Cup, he will have a chance to make a case prior to the squad’s announcement. However, one must question whether this is adequate preparation for a man who has not played the game for two years.
It would certainly seem more prudent to let him find his feet once again in the ITM Cup without the added pressure. This would give him the summer to evaluate his game, then the chance to return to the All Blacks if his Super Rugby performances warrant it next year.
There is, after all, no guarantee he will be an instant superstar upon his return. Having played with National Rugby League’s Sydney Roosters for the past two seasons, he has shown that his skill and athletic levels remain high. His offload is as good as ever, as is his ability to hit gaps, and he remains a strong ball-carrier.
However, the two games are not directly transferable, and the tactics and decision-making processes are vastly different. He will need to readjust to the mentality required for Rugby Union, notably by being able to recognize when to offload and when not to, something it took him time to learn last time. He will also have to fit back into the defensive patterns of Rugby Union, which could take some time.
That is not to say this will take time; he may slot back in just fine. But given he has been playing a different game for two years, it is only natural to expect that he may need a transition period, although a shorter one than last time.
Even then, the All Blacks must ask if they really need him. In his last stint in the 15-man game, Williams only really began to find his feet in his final six months. During this time he was playing outside Aaron Cruden at the Chiefs and looked impressive for it. Cruden’s ability to put men into holes suited Williams well, while the dangerous Chiefs outside backs and strong-linking loose forwards ran off him well for the offload.
Up until this point though, he had really looked like a Rugby League player playing Rugby Union. He had a lot of potential, and while at times he could look a million dollars, against a stronger team he had a tendency to go into a shell.
The key to his game is to take the ball to the line. That is when he is so dangerous, as he not only attracts defenders but gives himself the chance to offload to someone hitting the line at pace. He had a tendency to not do this against top opposition, however, often looking to pass the ball on. While this is not always a bad thing, a player like Williams needs to be aggressive at times to get the best value out of his game.
His appearances with the All Blacks were not always those of a superstar. While he was indeed outstanding in his five appearances in 2012, up until that point he never really convinced against genuinely strong opposition.
At the 2011 World Cup he was no more than a minor player who was lucky to win a spot on the bench. There were moments of brilliance, but when it came to the crunch matches he was hardly sighted, and it was Ma’a Nonu who was trusted.
These things should all be in the All Blacks selector’s minds. Perhaps the key question to ask is whether the 2012 Williams was a true reflection of the man or just someone on a run of good form. Unfortunately, he left the country before this question could truly be answered and thus needs to prove himself before walking straight back into the black jersey.
It is not as if there is a shortage of talent in the All Blacks midfield. Conrad Smith is clearly the best outside centre in the country, while Malakai Fekitoa has impressed enough to be the backup.
This means that Williams will not be seen as a serious option here and will go solely up against the inside centres for their positions.
Nonu has given some indifferent performances at Super Rugby level over the past four years but despite niggling injuries has still been solid enough for the All Blacks.
Defensively he is as good as any, and his experience in the position is something that cannot be taught, much like his longtime partnership with Conrad Smith. Assuming he can keep his body intact for another year, he will be one of the inside centres to go to next year’s World Cup.
The second selection is less clear, and it may yet be Williams who fills that position. However, Ryan Crotty has come on well over the past couple of years and has done his job in his appearances for the All Blacks. He is a strong ball-carrier who runs good angles to break the line while also being strong defensively with a fairly safe skill set.
His game does not possess quite the same flair as Williams’ but is not necessarily any worse. Again, this is not to say that Williams should not be picked, only that there is no need to rush him back. If he is good enough, he will get a chance to prove it next year.
It would seem unlikely that he will be used as an option in the outside backs as he was in 2011. With Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Charles Piutau and Julian Savea, there simply is not room for him there. Even so, he has yet to prove he has the fundamentals to play there and has not yet played on the wing against an opposition that will constantly bomb him and test him that way.
There is still a long time to go and plenty of rugby to be played before next year’s World Cup. The man they call SBW will have ample time to prove himself up to the standard of All Blacks rugby before then. He is not a player who needs to be rushed back, nor one who should be.
If he is good enough he will be an All Black again soon enough. You really can't put it more simply than that.