In turns touchy and touching, the rugby great - and radio sports reader, of course - is hard to fathom
World exclusive! Former All Black and current sports reader on The Rock Ali Williams gives his longest interview ever! Reveals amazing details about his private life! Loves every minute of it!
Some of the above is true: The longest interview ever bit is, according to him. The bit about his private life? He said: "I'm sitting here and we're meant to be talking about radio and we've talked about my private life." And so after the longest interview ever, I was wandering along Ponsonby Rd, pondering the riddle that is Ali Williams, when I ran into a sports writer of my acquaintance. I told him I'd just seen Ali Williams and he laughed his head off and said in a way which suggested he already knew the answer: How was he?
In response, I said that I'd booked him for an hour; he said he'd been told five or 10 minutes. I'd said a photographer was coming; he said he had no idea a photographer would be coming. He professed to have no knowledge of which publication his longest interview ever would be appearing in.
The sports writer laughed even harder. He said: "That's what we have to put up with all the time!"
I'm not altogether certain the interviewee ever got to grips with what I was doing there. He said: "What sort of interview is this? Are we promoting The Rock, or what?" We were promoting him, I said. I'll do my best.
He is doing an eight-week stint on The Rock, reading the sports news on the breakfast show and doing stunts such as the one involving him driving a car while two "hot Rock roadies" took their clothes off in the back seat. He is 32 and married to Casey Green, who runs a fitness studio called Body Beautiful, and they have a 4-month-old baby girl called Jessica.
I said of the stunt: What did your wife think of that? He said: "She was fine. Of course she was fine." What does he mean: Of course?
He said: 'Have you seen it? Have you seen the clip?" I had. "I was facing that way. They were behind me. Let's not be precious." There was a mirror. "Let's not be precious. That's fun and games. Let's enjoy each other's company. What I see here is you're judging something from afar."
I thought it was a fairly light-hearted question about a silly jape but apparently not. I also thought a wife might have thought it a bit silly, but I was the silly one. So I said, "er, joking" but you don't make light-hearted queries of jokers. He said: "You weren't there. But once again, it's closed-off ... what is right and wrong ... I think now in New Zealand, or especially in the world, people have got things that are right and can be wrong for other people ... Like, the world is so much more diverse and open and, you know, I think that's where we may be getting to ... We judge ... And we don't need to."
Crikey! It was two chicks in the back of a car, taking their clothes off, while he was - to get this clear - Not Looking.
I said: What are you judgmental about? Anything?"
He said: "Yeah. Probably everything."
He has a reputation for being a funny guy and that certainly made me laugh like anything. "Oh, well, that's all right then," I said, noticing, too late, that I was the only one laughing.
Anyway, there you go - there is the promotion for The Rock. It is just over 300 words and I think he'll agree that that is pretty generous, given that he said, as a parting offering: "I think there's enough in there to write, you know, a hundred words."
Was that intended to be spectacularly rude? Or was it simply accidentally spectacularly rude? Or was he being funny?
That is another mystery. As was the whole ignorance of the interview arrangement. Perhaps he really didn't know, or didn't listen; he certainly didn't bother to find out anything about the interview in advance of it. That's a good trick. It says: I'm not interested enough to waste my time finding out. It's an attempt to put your interviewer on the back foot from the beginning - but it's an old trick and so doesn't really work with grizzled old hacks like me. And neither does the equally old trick of requesting copy approval after the interview. He was an All Black for over a decade, you'd think he'd know how the game works.
Still, at least he wasn't wearing a Spider-Man suit. He once did a sports interview dressed in a Spider-Man suit (as far as I can work out he only does sports interviews and, no doubt, copy-approved, paid-for interviews with women's magazines - which was possibly a large part of the reason our interview went so askew.)
Then again, he might have been more fun in fancy dress.
I am very interested in this dressing up because Dan Carter once told me that he had a collection of costumes, mostly of super heroes, and that the lads sometimes came over and played dress-ups. I think this is pretty weird and, because Ali and Dan are such great mates - they and Richie McCaw have a beverage company and charitable foundation, called Water for Everyone - I asked if he'd ever gone to Dan's and played dress-ups. This is what earned me the "what sort of interview is this?" question.
He said: "What's playing dress-ups? What does that mean?" I told him the story about the costumes and lads' games at Dan's and he said: "Might have, yeah. Might have the same scenario at my house." Does he? "Of course we do." Putting that "of course" to one side (I wouldn't have thought there was very much "of course" about it, but what do I know about rugby lads?), what's this dressing-up about? "Dressing up is probably one of the best things." Either I was being amazingly dense, or exposition is not one of his talents so: Why?
"Because it drops everyone's expectations or perceptions of who you are ... [When he did his Spider-Man interview] everyone started talking to Spider-Man. They completely forgot that ... they actually wanted to talk about all the rubbish about me and the Blues and the Crusaders. We talked for 10 minutes about Spider-Man and that was the time and then I could leave."
I said, admiringly, and hardly sarcastically at all: "That was clever then, wasn't it?"
He said, enigmatically: "There's more to it than people think sometimes, isn't there?"
Anyway, he does play dress-ups at home sometimes: 'Well, not just by myself, you know." Yes, that would be rather peculiar, unlike when the boys come over and dress up as super heroes and, well, do what? Chase each other around? "No! You dress up and you're just talking. It's like a Sunday barbecue." But dressed up. I couldn't think of a thing to say about this. He said: "Have you ever dressed up? You should start dressing up." As what? "Anything." Could I be Spider-Man? "You could be Spider-Man. For sure. I don't know if you'd have the same super powers that I have when I have the suit on, but who knows?"
This was more like it. We were now, I thought, getting on swimmingly and enjoying each other's company as instructed. I do enjoy a bit of whimsy, and so I thought, did he. It is a mistake, as I was about to find out, to assume anything about him. I think he enjoys confounding expectations. We all know he is supposed to be a funny guy (although as my sports writer mate said: It's bloke's humour; it's hardly Seinfeld) so he'll suddenly become earnest and humourless. He gave every appearance of being about to dig in his heels about having his picture taken, then went off, nice as pie, to have it taken. He said he had 10 minutes for the interview, then cancelled an appointment to give me, almost, the hour. He held doors open for me, but he didn't apologise, or even seem to remember that he'd cancelled, the afternoon before, our original interview time.
Did he confound expectation by crying at the press conference when he announced his retirement from the All Blacks? No, because: "I know what sort of guy I am and I'm an emotional guy ... I cry. I try not to. My wife knows I cry. Steve Hansen knew I was going to cry. I don't shy away from those things. I'm human."
He loves his family, obviously, and is very close to his dad, Rodney, who is a tetraplegic - he had a terrible accident when Ali was about 16. Also, he loves his two dogs, a Sydney silky and and a Yorkshire terrier. "They're not exactly manly dogs." He is going to France to play for Toulon, in about six weeks' time. I asked what would happen to the dogs and he said they were going to a good family friend but "you can't publish that because they'll read it and get upset because we haven't told them yet". I thought he meant the friend, but he meant the dogs. This was more whimsy - and rather sweet - so we carried on in this way for a while until I said, poor dogs, because he's had one for about seven years, and that he shouldn't have got them if he'd planned to go gallivanting about the world. Of course I didn't mean this and I thought he'd continue playing and say something like: Oh, okay, I won't go then!
But he was enraged and said: "Have you just heard what you just said? What a f***ing load of absolute rubbish. My God." It was like playing a pleasant if childish game of Tiddlywinks which had suddenly turned into a game of Russian Roulette. So I said, equally crossly: "Oh? You can't put that in the paper because the dogs will read it and get upset?"
Perhaps I'd unintentionally touched a nerve - and he is really emotional about leaving the dogs, in which case I apologise sincerely. But he calms down as quickly as he goes off and he said, in a placatory enough sort of way: "Anyway ..." And went on to talk movingly about his dad and how he is his best friend, and about how wonderful his caregivers were and how under-appreciated care-givers are.
He's a funny fish (and there were many times I'd have happily thrown him into a vat of frying oil; it would have been a matter of who got to throw the other in first) and fairly thin-skinned, I think. He talks a lot about how people are too quick to judge others including, of course, him. He says a big part of the reason for going to France is to find out: "Do I want to be in the public eye the rest of my life or do I not want to be?"
I can think of a glaringly obvious upside, and I'm quite sure he can too.