Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: SBW may be included on end-of-year tour

If the selectors decide they want SBW, they will need an exemption from the NZRU board to pick him. Photo / Getty Images
If the selectors decide they want SBW, they will need an exemption from the NZRU board to pick him. Photo / Getty Images

The door is open for Sonny Bill Williams to play on the end-of-year tour but a decision won't be made until the All Blacks coaches have a better idea of his likely physical state.

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Williams has signed to play for the Chiefs in 2015 but could be taken to the US and Europe in November this year as part of the All Blacks' likely 31-man squad.

Currently with the Sydney Roosters in the NRL, Williams' league commitments could finish as early as September 6 if the defending champions fail to make the playoffs but he could also still be playing on October 4 if they make it back to the grand final.

The All Blacks play their final Rugby Championship match at Ellis Park on the same weekend as the NRL grand final, then face the Wallabies in Brisbane on October 18.

Last year, they named their end-of-year touring squad on the Sunday after their final Bledisloe Cup clash, and are likely to do much the same again this year.

There will be several questions for the selectors to ask in relation to Williams. Top of the agenda will be his physical condition after a brutal NRL campaign.

Then there will be his lack of rugby, and whether the selectors would be willing for Williams to come straight into test football after not having played the code since August 2012. But they are also mindful of bringing him back into the set-up early ahead of next year's World Cup.

"If he's coming back, it depends on what time of year he gets back and what condition he is in," said All Black coach Steve Hansen.

"There are so many variables that we will have to wait and see. Is it right for the team to bring him straight back in? Is there a need for the team to have him straight back in?

"All of these things have to be taken into consideration and, at this time of the year, we don't know the answers."

If the selectors decide they want Williams, they will need an exemption from the New Zealand Rugby Union board to pick him. Players have to have played (or be contracted to play) in the preceding domestic competition to be eligible.

The question raised by Hansen in relation to the team's need is the hardest to answer.

If Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty are all fit, then the All Blacks have ample midfield resources.

But Williams is an exceptional athlete who, despite the fact he won't have played rugby for more than two years, would make a significant contribution if recalled.

He was one of the best midfield backs in the world when he returned to rugby league and the All Black coaches are confident he will pick up the game again and be back to somewhere near his best in relatively short order.

Accommodating Williams would require the selectors to make some extremely tough choices elsewhere — and some established and/or emerging talent would have to be left at home.

Hansen is conscious his job won't be easy when they inevitably have to leave players out.

"We have built a base and if they are all fit and playing well, then we have a headache. But if we fall back into what is right for the team, then we will make the right decisions for the right reasons.

"Have we put a lot of thought into how we are going to keep everyone happy? Well, it falls into that culture of team first, individual second.

"I think that's how we have looked at it. Look at each individual and ask how they are travelling. Look at the older players and ask whether they need a breather.

"The younger players ... do they need a breather just to get away from the pressure of it all? And we have managed that pretty well and we will continue to look at it on an individual basis."

- Herald on Sunday

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