Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Sonny Bill - desire to improve lifted me from Olympic disappointment

Sonny Bill Williams trains with the Blues today after finally being given the go-ahead to return from his Achilles injury. Photo / Photosport
Sonny Bill Williams trains with the Blues today after finally being given the go-ahead to return from his Achilles injury. Photo / Photosport

Sonny Bill Williams has spoken of how down he felt when he ruptured his Achilles while playing for the New Zealand sevens team on the world stage - the Olympics at Rio de Janiero last August - and how his determination to return as a better player helped him recover.

Another positive was that the eight months away from the game allowed him to spend time with his young and growing family - he has two daughters with wife Alana aged six months and two.

As a consequence of that there have been plenty of nappies to change and sleepless nights, but Williams said his energy has never flagged as he prepares to play his first match for his new franchise.

Williams' return - he has been named on the Blues' reserves bench for the match against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday - has been long-awaited by the team's supporters and coach Tana Umaga, who signed the 31-year-old All Black from the Chiefs on a three-year contract last year.

But no one is looking forward to his comeback more than the man himself. He has been a competitive and vocal element to Blues training over the past month or so and he ran to the waiting media scrum at the team's Alexandra Park headquarters this morning.

Part of that excitement is the fact that in terms of his physical condition and game understanding, Williams feels he has become a better player and wants to put himself to the test.

"It's been a long journey but a really blessed one," he said this morning.

"At the start when I first got injured and I was down - I was really down because of where I was at, the Olympics, obviously - but then straight away I changed my mindset into 'hey, this is my body telling me I need a break. I'm going to be at home with my girls for a bit'.

"That's where it started. Trying to be grateful every day was the key and then making that decision early on that I was going to come back in better shape, better nick, than before the injury."

The Highlanders, one position below the eighth-placed Blues, are in line to feel the brunt of Williams' power and finesse in the second half at Forsyth Barr Stadium as Umaga, a man who coached Williams at Counties and played alongside him at Toulon, integrates his midfielder back into the game.

Umaga said: "We want to make sure we give him some good game time but [make sure] it's controlled."

Williams said he wasn't expecting too much from his first outing, but privately he will look to make a big impact in what is his first XVs match since playing a big role off the bench for the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup final.

Asked if he thought he had succeeded in his aim of returning in better condition, he said: "I hope so, I've been working pretty hard in the gym and out of the gym - being diligent with all of the little things I need to do; and also trying to upskill myself from a game understanding point of view as well.

"It's been a tough journey, I won't lie - a lot of sacrifices and a lot of hard work.

"I've done a little bit of mental work - trying to tick that box because that is a big one."

Umaga added: "He's wanted to come back better as well. He feels a lot better than he did prior to his injury when he was playing a lot of sevens. He feels strong."

Williams said he felt that his speed had improved during his break, and that he had added "subtleties" to his game; all of which means that this match, in the contest of the All Blacks' squad for the Lions in June, has suddenly achieved a much greater significance.

- NZ Herald

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