Rugby: Sonny fits the bill

Sonny Bill Williams of the Chiefs passes during the Super Rugby Semi Final match between the Chiefs and Crusaders. Photo / Sandra Mu
Sonny Bill Williams of the Chiefs passes during the Super Rugby Semi Final match between the Chiefs and Crusaders. Photo / Sandra Mu

If Sonny Bill Williams declines to make himself available for the Bledisloe Cup tests to help his country in the midst of a major injury crisis, it won't be because he doesn't feel wanted.

The 27-year-old revealed in signing with the Panasonic Wild Knights this month, that he would not be part of the Rugby Championship. His preference was to rest after Super Rugby before heading to Japan and then into the NRL for a near 12-month stretch of football.

But with Richard Kahui and Conrad Smith injured-the formerout for the season and the latter for at least the first two games of the Rugby Championship but probably longer - the All Blacks are expected to work hard at persuading Williams to change his plans and play against Australia on August 18 and again a week later.

If he did, then Nonu could shift to centre and the All Blacks would have an explosive package that they have fielded once before-albeit the other way round - when Williams made his debut at Twickenham in 2010.

Williams stayed put in the Chiefs changing room after their semifinal win in Hamilton, preferring to leave his intentions a mystery, but All Black captain Richie McCaw is in no doubt the world's most destructive midfielder would be a welcome addition.

"Well, if he's available, you saw the way he played tonight, and if he's keen and it all works, then I don't see that as a problem," said McCaw. "Losing a guy like Conrad who is obviously experienced . . . to have a guy like Sonny available, he's got some experience
now, that would be a positive. But I don't know if he's available."

Whether Williams is available is now the million dollar question and only likely to be publicly answered when the All Black squad is named a week today. Even if he does answer his country's calls, it is believed he'd be available only for the Bledisloe games, as he's required to be in Japan by the end of the month.

Smith is facing a six-week hiatus from training after eye surgery last week so is only an outside bet to be ready to play the Pumas on September 8 or the Boks on September 15.

If Williams isn't available, then a big year for Tamati Ellison is about to get bigger - the Highlanders utility back will be the preferred replacement for Smith in that case.

These are worrying times for the new All Black coaching panel in regard to their midfield. They had, only a few months ago, almost obscene riches - Nonu, Williams, Smith and Kahui. Which is why there was no real cause for alarm when Nonu couldn't shake his fatigue and find his form in the weeks before the Ireland series. Even when the injury curse struck Kahui for the zillionth time and ruled him out for the remainder of the season, there was no sense of panic.

But now Williams is leaving, either immediately after Super Rugby or at the end of the month, and Smith is recovering. From having four worldclass players-arguably the two best midfield combinations in world rugby - they may have to face Australia with just Nonu available.

Never mind what is being lost in Smith, arguably the best centre in the world right now and a critical component of the All Blacks' weaponry, the bigger issue is finding someone to replace him.

There is talent and potential but little experience. Ellison has two caps; Rene Ranger, a more natural wing, has three but little form or confidence; and Robbie Fruean, the man who should be knocking down the door, continues to disappoint with his lack of work rate and ability to force his colossal frame on the game.

In his short time as head coach, Steve Hansen has been an intriguing mix of conservative and maverick in his selections. A double-header against the Wallabies is not the time to be high risk with such a critical berth which is why Ellison is most likely to, be given the job of covering for Smith.

A composed and collected footballer, Ellison has taken his game up a level since his return from Japan in February. He was organised and capable during his first New Zealand stint during 2003-09; he played across the Hurricanes backline until he finally won national recognition with a place in the 2009 end of year squad and a solitary cap at centre against Italy.

His elevation was partly due to his consistent form and partly due to injury to Kahui. Ellison, aware that he was destined to remain on the periphery, headed to Japan in 2010 before making a surprise return with the Highlanders this year.

Few doubted Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph had pulled off a smart piece of business in snaring the 29-year-old. He added experience and versatility, and his distribution would be important in bringing Hosea Gear and Ben Smith into the game.

No one, though, imagined just how effective and lively Ellison would be. A return to the test arena was not being predicted by anyone, yet here he is now poised to play the hero of the hour. The Wallabies have had some joy at exploiting inexperienced All Black centres in the past and will no doubt sniff an advantage with Ellison in the role. But they might be out of luck if Ellison gets the nod. He's been a more dynamic and penetrative runner since he returned; he's challenged the line, broken it, found space and tackled with demon force.

The 2012 version has been Ellison Extra, a jazzed-up version of his former self and the All Blacks will struggle to look past him to fill the No 13 jersey in the back-to-back tests against Australia later next month.

Ellison is the closest thing available to being a direct replacement for Smith. He is trusted in a way neither Ranger nor Fruean are. He's that bit older, that bit more conditioned to making good decisions under pressure and guaranteed to empty his tank and defend with his life.

It's helpful rather than majorly significant that Ellison has partnered Nonu in the midfield at both the Hurricanes and for the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan.

Ellison's professionalism was best typified in round one of Super Rugby when he stepped off the plane from Japan on a Friday and played the opening game in Hamilton a day later. His knowledge of the game plan was sketchy, he barely knew the names of some of his team, and yet he was man of the match.

Test rugby is another level up again but the effortless way Ellison coped with his late return and the stylish way he's renovated his game since returning from Japan make him the obvious choice to help out in this particular injury crisis.

- Herald on Sunday

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