Gregor Paul on rugby
Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Going under the knife saves Ali from being cut

Steve Hansen has to accept he can no longer pick Ali Williams on faith alone. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Hansen has to accept he can no longer pick Ali Williams on faith alone. Photo / Getty Images

It was a touch fortuitous for both Ali Williams and the All Blacks that his knee should begin Sunday morning with an almighty gripe that required the big lock to concede surgery was necessary.

Better the surgeon's knife rather than the selectors' and the latter was going to be decidedly difficult to avoid. The sad and unavoidable truth about Williams is that injury has robbed him of the elasticity he once had. We all hope that his former self will come round the corner any day now - but it doesn't seem likely.

He's just not there as he once was. His game has gone - the things that made him special are no longer in his basket, maybe not forever, but misplaced for the moment. On Saturday night in Christchurch he took a giant step towards the scrapheap - or to give it its new title, a contract in Japan.

He was sent off the bench to provide stability - to tidy the lineout, shore up a creaking scrum, sort out a few Irish strays at the tackled ball and provide a general level of composure and level-headedness that supposedly comes with 75 test caps.

His only meaningful contribution was to concede a kickable penalty for needlessly fighting and then to gob off at the referee to bring the kick 10 metres closer.

He didn't exactly repay the faith shown in him by coach Steve Hansen and knee surgery is a blessing - it will give both parties some space. Which is exactly what they need - both coach and player are being hindered by memories of Williams as he was before he suffered double trauma to his Achilles in both 2009 and 2010.

In 2008, when he was in his prime, he was, almost, the perfect player. He was rugged and durable - his set-piece work was immaculate, his desire to hit bodies insatiable. He offered plenty more on top as well: he could roam freely, tackle like a loose forward, support the ball carrier and give and take a pass. He was the world's best lock back then and his elevation to the All Black leadership group seemed to do much to deter his alter ego - Comical Ali - from appearing much.

Hansen wants that player back. Williams wants to be that player again and perhaps desire has blighted the judgement of both. Williams returned to competitive football early last year after almost two years out of the game. He was desperate to play at the World Cup and it felt for much of the year, that his passion was inhibiting him. He played with that edge of desperation - but not in a good way. That eagerness didn't bring out the best in him and now the time has come for him to change his mentality. Once his knee is fixed he needs to return to the ITM Cup and rekindle his natural instincts. Just play the game for what it is and not obsess about being an All Black.

Hansen, for his part, has to accept he can no longer pick Williams on faith alone. There has to be more tangible evidence that Williams is actually playing like an All Black and not selected on the basis that he might soon be playing like an All Black.

Gregor Paul is the rugby editor for Herald on Sunday

- Herald on Sunday

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