Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Super Sonny must fight his way on to the field

All Black No 10 Cruden excited to work with NRL star again but says Williams will have his work cut out making the starting midfield, writes Patrick McKendry

Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Some of Sonny Bill Williams' best moments in rugby came when he played alongside Aaron Cruden and the first-five is looking forward to renewing that partnership with a midfielder he describes as a "winner".

Williams will be a controversial inclusion to the All Blacks' November tour of Chicago, England, Scotland and Wales, should he decide to jump on a plane straight after his second season representing the Sydney Roosters in the NRL after the New Zealand Rugby Union board cleared the way for him to go without first playing domestically here.

Not surprisingly, Cruden hopes Williams is on board, but while he praised his former teammate's talent, Cruden conceded the 29-year-old might struggle to break into a midfield starting line-up featuring the experience and talent of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

"Having that season with Sonny a few years ago was outstanding," said Cruden of Williams, who helped the Chiefs to their first Super Rugby title in 2012.

Williams, who began his Super Rugby experience with the Crusaders the year before, returned to league after his stint in Hamilton, but only after playing in two Bledisloe Cup tests following Conrad Smith's eye injury.

Both were successes for the All Blacks. In his 19 tests, Williams lost only once - an 18-5 defeat to South Africa in Port Elizabeth in 2011.

"He's a hell of an athlete, he just brings his raw talent into everything he does," Cruden said. "You look at him and he's just a winner in everything he applies himself to. Results show that he wins. To have him back in this environment, training with him every day, will not only help Sonny get up to speed quickly but guys around him as well. He's that type of player, that type of person. Things just seem to click when he's around.

"He's going to have a hard job getting back into the starting XV in the All Blacks. There are some fantastic midfielders - we've got that experienced combo of Conrad and Ma'a [Nonu], and then obviously Malakai [Fekitoa] coming through and Ryan Crotty, so it's going to be great. Adding depth to New Zealand rugby can only strengthen what we're trying to achieve."

The explosive Fekitoa is an exciting prospect and Crotty a reliable performer who made the most of his recent start against Australia at Eden Park before succumbing to a broken jaw which will keep him out for four weeks.

That, and the unavailability of Nonu from that Bledisloe Cup demolition because of a shoulder problem, means Williams' return to the rugby fold is all the more valuable for coach Steve Hansen. There is no obvious starting role for Williams at the moment, but having the ability to add him to the fray is akin to an ace up Hansen's sleeve.

There was also a sense before last weekend's six-try blowout against the Wallabies that the All Blacks were struggling slightly to break down opposition defences.

In the first two tests against England in June, the visitors pushed the All Blacks close with their suffocating defence and ability to score on the counter. In the final test in Hamilton, a defensive meltdown from the inexperienced second-five Kyle Eastmond allowed the All Blacks to run riot in the first half to secure a three-test sweep.

At his best, Williams is a supreme attacker who can create problems for any defence. His performance alongside Cruden for the All Blacks against Ireland in Hamilton in 2012 - a 60-0 victory - will live long in the memory for his two tries and ability to link with his first-five.

With a World Cup and the associated water-tight defences looming, it's a winning attacking threat which will be at the forefront of not only Cruden's mind but also Hansen's.

- NZ Herald

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