All Blacks Rugby: Sonny Bill Williams Is Stephen Donald All over Again
Sonny Bill Williams had been touted as one of the most promising talents that New Zealand could have pull on the All Blacks jersey.
A freak, who was big, athletic and skillful, and had already made his name playing Rugby League a few years earlier, Williams was the future of All Blacks rugby.
Many players have struggled to transfer between the two codes in the past. But this wouldn't be a problem for Sonny Bill Williams, they said. He was the answer to the All Blacks woes after their worst season in recent memory in 2009.
Twelve months on, the man that was received all the hype has pulled on the All Blacks jersey, shown what he can, or can't do, and has failed to make the impression many thought he would. As it turned out, he was really all hype.
On the other hand, we have a group of selectors many call the "three wise men". The men who New Zealand have entrusted to help guide their beloved All Blacks to do what they haven't been able to do since 1987—win a Rugby World Cup.
The team has had an incredible win rate and have been incredibly successful. But they have faltered at times, and one must ask themselves why this should be the case.
The most obvious answer is that they do not learn from their mistakes.
Too often they have picked a player that has been dominant at lower levels time and again, but has always faltered on the worlds biggest stage of test match rugby.
Look back just 12 months, when after all the speculation as to who would back up Daniel Carter, Stephen Donald was given yet another opportunity.
Donald had played for the All Blacks on numerous occasions before, but had never quite been able to find the form he displayed while with Waikato or the Chiefs. It showed just how much a step up it is to the top level. After his performance against Australia in Hong Kong last year, Donald was made the main scapegoat for the loss and the public tore into him. Such was the impact, Donald wouldn't feature for the All Blacks again after that tour.
However, the main issue with Donald was that the selectors had knowingly taken a player who had excelled at provincial level time and time again but never been able to transfer it to the test arena. After the Donald mishap, the selectors said they had learnt from their mistake and wouldn't take unproven players into such important games again.
Yet isn't that exactly what they've done with Sonny Bill Williams?
Williams looks so good playing in the ITM Cup, where his offload makes him dangerous, and he is able to break defences with frequent abandon. Even at Super level he looks dangerous against most teams, particularly with Robbie Fruean running off him.
But every time he comes up against a strong opposition, he falters.
It's not that he's not capable of producing the stuff he does in the lower grades. It's simply a lack of willingness to do it. Against the Springboks and the Wallabies he seems to go into a shell and just look to pass the ball on rather than take the ball to the line and create something.
It's just not enough to be getting out of a second five-eighth. Compare the work he does to that of Ma'a Nonu. Nonu is constantly involved in everything and is always one of the most dangerous players on the field, following the play and having a natural instinct for where to be. Williams doesn't do this.
Many people say he defends well. True, he has improved a lot in this department. But Benson Stanley is also a very good defender and does just as much if not more on defence than Sonny Bill Williams. Yet Stanley's name is barely mentioned when talks of All Black midfielders start.
On attack he does little. Two or three offloads in 80 minutes isn't enough to justify selection when you've got other players who will be dangerous for the entire match.
Yet the selectors continue to persist with him based on what they've seen him do against weaker opposition. The thing with test rugby and particularly at the World Cup, is that you can't pick a player based on what you've seen him do at lower levels or you know he can do. You pick based on how well they've played against top opposition before. And for Williams, he hasn't done much.
A good performance against Scotland last year and he was a hero. But really, Scotland aren't the force they once were and have looked average at best against the minnows of the World Cup.
He's played well against Tonga and Japan during the All Blacks World Cup campaign. But once again, these teams are barely higher than ITM Cup quality, a big step down from what it will be like to play the superpowers of the game.
Yet good performances against these teams seem to have justified him a spot on the All Blacks bench against France, in a team that was supposedly their strongest.
Once again, the selectors are picking on what they have seen him do and are hoping he can do it against a better quality opposition. In other words, he is largely unproven against top opposition, or he is proven to falter.
To add to this, he has been picked as the outside back cover as well as midfield cover, keeping out players such as Isaia Toeava and Mils Muliaina.
While it's been said that he has the potential to play wing, it's a largely unproven selection. Only once has he played on the wing, in the weekend's match against Japan, which in essence counts for nothing. So yet again, the selectors go with an unproven option just to include Sonny Bill Williams.
The issue here isn't so much that he's unproven, but more that there is proven talent that he's keeping out. Toeava and Muliaina have both been there/done that before and can both cover centre, wing and fullback.
Surely it would be more prudent to use one of these two players, rather than picking someone who has looked only average against top opposition and barely played wing.
Picking more cover for midfield seems largely unnecessary also, given that Richard Kahui who is starting on the wing, can cover there. Wouldn't it be better to have a specialist outside back cover, rather than four midfielders?
It seems as though they are doing exactly what they did with Donald. The only difference being that they were forced to do what they did with Donald as there was no apparent backup, whereas Williams is keeping some top quality players out of the side.
Whether they want to admit it or not, the fact that they continually choose players who have choked at the top level shows that the same mistakes that were being made in the past are still being made and these could be costly in a tournament as cut-throat as a World Cup.
I can only hope I am wrong.
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