New Zealand Rugby yesterday confirmed that Sonny Bill Williams will be given a special exemption, should it be needed, to fast-track his way into the All Blacks' end-of-year tour.
The original thinking was that Williams would have to play some ITM Cup for Counties Manukau to qualify for selection, but this has now been waived, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew confirmed yesterday.
Some may say this creates a dangerous precedent, but Williams has always been regarded as a special case, and he has signed with the union for 2015-16, with a view to playing at Rugby World Cup 2015 and possibly the 2016 Rio Olympic Games with the All Blacks Sevens.
His Roosters side lie third in the NRL and if they get knocked out of the NRL playoffs early, Williams may yet see game time with the Steelers. If the Roosters reach the October 5 grand final, Counties Manukau have at least two matches to follow, playoffs notwithstanding, a potential Ranfurly Shield clash with Auckland on October 8, and a trip to Blenheim to face Tasman on October 12.
The 2010-12 All Blacks midfielder has just returned from layoff with a broken thumb in the NRL, and came off the bench on Sunday for the Roosters against the Warriors in Auckland. When approached by the Herald after the match, possibly his last at Mt Smart Stadium, Williams was typically non-committal about his October plans.
The NZ Rugby board are bending their own rules, which state that a players needs to have played in the preceding national provincial (or Super Rugby) competition to be eligible for the All Blacks. They have bent the rules in the past, though, notably in 2009, when Luke McAlister returned from the Sale Sharks to turn out for the All Blacks in the June series, without having appeared in Super Rugby.
Tew said New Zealand Rugby had made a substantial investment in Williams, and the board felt that the coaches should have the discretion to select him if required for the November tour.
Williams also played two tests for the All Blacks in August 2012 after signing to play in Japan. He was able to get dispensation to help the All Blacks, who were in a midfield bind due to a Conrad Smith injury.
When Williams first signed with New Zealand rugby in 2010, he played seven games for Canterbury in the ITM Cup, winning and defending the Ranfurly Shield. His final provincial match in this country came in October 2010, when Canterbury repulsed the Steelers' challenge, and Williams scored his fourth try of the season. Williams was chosen for the All Blacks' November 2010 tour, making four appearances.