With Steve Hansen having hinted that he will give Ma’a Nonu a rest during the upcoming three-test series against Ireland, it now looks almost certain that Sonny Bill Williams will be wearing the 12 jersey for the All Blacks. Even if Nonu wasn’t to be given a break, SBW would fully deserve to be starting at inside centre. The 26-year-old has been one of the best players in Super Rugby this season. His spectacular form for the Chiefs means Ireland will have to watch him very closely on Saturday.
The Hamilton-based franchise sit top of the overall Super Rugby table after 13 games. Sonny Bill has been a huge part of the success so far. His attacking game has been razor sharp, and he looks like a far more complete player than when he first switched from league. He’s gained the 4th highest number of metres in possession, with 984, behind only Hosea Gear, Andre Taylor and Ben Smith. Williams is joint 3rd for line-breaks on 11 and is the clear leader in the offloading table, with an incredible 29 in his 13 games.
It’s this ability to play the ball out of the tackle that makes Williams such a dangerous proposition. At almost 6’4″ and 108kg of pure muscle, he has a physique which has helped him to become the heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand (video at bottom of this piece). William’s size and power allow him to take the tackle on his own terms and he always gets his hands through. As soon as SBW gets the ball, the offload is the first thing on his mind. It’s one of the most effective attacking weapons in world rugby.
Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll are both very powerful men, but at 5’11” and 5’10” respectively, may struggle to deal with Williams. The All Black will be confident of getting his hands through the tackle against both, and with Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg running the intelligent lines off him, Ireland could be cut to shreds. So it there a way to stop the Sonny Bill offload? It’s easier said than done, but O’Driscoll and D’Arcy have the experience and intelligence to dull the big man’s effectiveness.
Last Saturday, the Chiefs beat the Blues 41-34 in a brilliant, exciting game. Williams was excellent opposite his All Blacks’ rival Ma’a Nonu, clearly coming out on top of their individual battle. He scored one try with a powerful finish and set up countless opportunities for his team mates with his offloading game. However, there was one poor offload following a searing line-break. Williams was in open field and tried his signature one-handed offload despite the fact that he hadn’t actually been tackled.
That missed pass against the Blues at the weekend betrayed Williams’ obsession with playing the ball out of the tackle. It’s as if he needs to do it every time he’s in possession. Ireland have to turn it against him, frustrate him at every opportunity. Defenders either side of the tackle need to expect it every single time, try to intercept it or get a hand to it. The Irish must be prepared for him to get the ball away and be alert and ready to react decisively.
It’s pointless to say that the Irish centres simply need to double up on Williams in the tackle. If it was as easy as that, then he wouldn’t be top of the Super Rugby stats chart for offloading. If they can team up, then one goes low and chops him as early as possible, while the other targets his ball-carrying arm rather than trying to wrap his upper body. That second tackler has to be deadly accurate when he targets Sonny Bill’s arms. But Williams will get one-on-one with defenders, so what’s the best thing to do then? If you go in high, he has a strong fend and real power in contact.
The defender has to take him low because if he does bump them off, Williams has the pace to punish the Irish defence. The simple fact is that the Chiefs man will get the ball away in the tackle. The Irish defence must have a collective awareness, particularly the back-row as they sweep across from set-piece play, and Conor Murray/Eoin Reddan as they sweep behind the defence in phase play. When Williams makes those offloads, these guys need to be in like a flash, smashing the All Blacks’ support player.
It’s just one aspect of the All Blacks’ game that Ireland have to deal with, but it’s a particularly lethal one. The in-form Williams represents an altogether different challenge to anything D’Arcy and O’Driscoll have faced so far this season. The battle in midfield should be a treat, especially with O’Driscoll looking so sharp himself in the Heineken Cup final (as the All Blacks recognised). Saturday’s 1st test should be tasty, and there’s no doubt that Sonny Bill Williams will be central to the outcome.
Photos courtesy: Geoff Trotter, Luton Anderson.