Sonny Bill Williams has not even returned to New Zealand rugby yet, but the predictable controversy has begun earlier than expected. In a decision that seems to embody hypocrisy, the NZRU has granted him an exemption, as per the New Zealand Herald.
The exemption will allow Williams to go on the All Blacks' end of year tour without having first played in the ITM Cup at the conclusion of the NRL season, should his Roosters team advance to the Grand Final. It is a decision which contradicts the policy of only picking players who are playing within New Zealand, which the NZRU has adhered to so strictly in the past.
Yet for whatever reason, Williams seems to be above this.
There is probably no other player who could claim this sort of power over the NZRU. Indeed the policy and lure of the black jersey is the main incentive for New Zealand's top players to remain in the country and not chase the greater money on offer overseas.
Even Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have not been above the protocol. Both were granted sabbaticals in their latest contracts, and that was controversial as it was. Bending the rules to allow them to play overseas and still represent the All Blacks was nearly unthinkable.
The irony of it all is that granting Williams this exemption allows him to do exactly what the policy was supposed to stop. He is a renowned code-hopper and this exception will only encourage him to continue. Now it is clear that the NZRU does not object to allowing him to playing in the NRL as well as for the All Blacks.
Not only is he not currently playing in New Zealand, he is not even currently playing rugby union.
If you will allow Williams to play, then why not someone like Shaun Johnson? Like Williams, Johnson is one of the stars of the NRL, but at least he plies his trade in New Zealand.
Consider the position they took on the stance in 2011. With no obvious back-up to Carter for the World Cup in New Zealand, they did not allow the selectors to pick Nick Evans, who was playing in England.
When Carter went down injured, no exception was made and the All Blacks soldiered on with the inexperienced Colin Slade, with the even less experienced Aaron Cruden behind him.
Slade subsequently went down and another replacement was needed. But still the NZRU did not budge.
They were prepared to risk losing a World Cup at home rather than make an exemption to their policy of not picking foreign-based players.
The same could be said about Carl Hayman. While the NZRU made every effort to get him back to New Zealand to prop the All Black scrum for the World Cup, they would not grant the man an exemption to remain in Europe and don the black jersey at the same time.
There is no denying Williams' abilities and potential. But his importance to the All Blacks is not the same as that of what Hayman or Evans would have been to the 2011 edition.
Why then grant him the exemption?
The man has not played rugby union for two years. There are no guarantees he will come back on top of his game. In fact, it is likely he will not. He will need a transition period to re-acquaint himself with the game. What better place to do this than the ITM Cup?
In his last stint in New Zealand rugby union, he was hardly a superstar on the field. He had a good final six months, but prior to that, was no more than a fringe player for the All Blacks.
With the Chiefs in 2012 he excelled and carried that form through to the first few All Blacks games, before departing. During this period he was running off Cruden well, taking the ball to the line and using his offload selectively.
Prior to this, though, he was inconsistent and tended to go into a shell in the big games. Nowhere was this seen more than in the Port Elizabeth encounter with the Springboks. Here, he rarely took the ball to the line. His entire game seemed to consist of shovelling the ball onto Richard Kahui and his inability to throw the long pass to the right was exposed.
At the World Cup he was used sparingly in the big games, with Ma'a Nonu being preferred.
When he comes back, who is to say that it will be the player of 2011 that emerges, rather than the player of 2012?
Of course 2012 showed what he is capable of. But he left too early to allow anyone to determine whether it was a true reflection of his ability, or simply a run of good form.
The other thing to consider is whose place he would be taking if the selectors take the NZRU up on the exception.
Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty have all proven themselves and are all playing good rugby. You could hardly justify dropping one of them to bring in someone who has not even been playing the sport for the past two years.
This is not to say that Williams does not have a place in the setup. He merely needs to prove that he is better than one of the incumbents before he is picked. This means playing in the ITM Cup and Super Rugby and earning his position, just like everyone else had to.
The selectors may go down this road. However, it seems strange that the NZRU would go out of their way to grant an exception if they were not intending to choose him. Indeed, it is more the fact that they granted the exemption in the first place that is the issue.
No one player is bigger than the game or the All Black jersey. Think of all the legends who bled for it. All in the name of upholding its honour.
By allowing someone to walk straight into that same jersey just does not seem right. It cheapens it and is disrespectful to all who wore it before and all who have strived, but failed, to wear it.
There is no doubt Williams is a talented individual who will work hard at his game. But he should have to prove himself once more before he reclaims his spot in the All Blacks lineup.
If he really is deserving, he will be back in black sooner rather than later.
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