"I am an old fella now," quips Sonny Bill Williams, speaking ahead of what was about to be his 50th test for the All Blacks. For Williams, in that moment, it was all very surreal.
"I didn't think it was a possibility when I first started," he says about the approaching milestone, perching and pondering alongside a 23-year-old Damian McKenzie – one of several post-millennial rising stars knocking on the door of All Blacks residency.
"When I first started playing rugby – and I have said this before – I didn't have that connection with it because I grew up as a league player," he continues. "[But] over the years, that developed, and being in this environment really helped that. And once I had that connection, I knew that anything was possible."
That October press conference in Tokyo was a picture of the All Blacks' generational divide: the veteran expounding the values of experience and consistency seated next to the unpredictable electricity of youth. The seasoned millennial against the wide-eyed irreverence of Generation Z. (According to Forbes, Gen Z is defined by people born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.)
Lately, that tone – wise and wistful, the kind that develops as one's prime slowly starts to fade – has enveloped the always self-deprecating and increasingly introspective Williams. In that 50th cap against the Wallabies, Williams yet again struggled to find his form of old after a year littered with injuries. Williams went down injured – again – a few weeks later in the All Blacks' tense victory over England at Twickenham after a shoulder issue forced him to leave the field after 30 minutes.
It has led many fans and pundits to question Williams' place in the All Blacks midfield. Even one of Williams' biggest backers Todd Blackadder recently expressed doubts over his spot in the team. "Sonny Bill Williams' place in the team will be one of the talking points; there'll be discussions by the coaches around that and combinations moving forward," said Blackadder, who coached Williams when he was at the Crusaders. And with the World Cup in Japan approaching, there is a long line of post-millennial suitors waiting in the wings, ready to snatch his spot as the All Blacks' incumbent second-five.
There seems to be a changing of the guard within the All Blacks ranks. It's easy to forget that the current crop of All Blacks is made up almost entirely of millennials. It's also easy to forget that many of those stalwarts – internet natives who ushered the team into its post-McCaw-Carter era – are themselves edging towards the twilight of their careers. Williams and several others among the team's elders – leaders, innovators, brave battlers against the inevitability of father time – represent the rise and fall of the millennial generation's dominance over New Zealand rugby.
As hysteria over the 'M' word fizzled out, those caffeine-fuelled dreamers started entering the workforce. All of a sudden, millennials were becoming CEOs, world leaders and All Blacks stars. They've gone from naive cultural provocateurs to shapers of the ever-changing world, armed with avocado toast and Instagram accounts. But even millennials aren't immune to the creeping effects of life's one guarantee. That is, after all, the beautiful tragedy of professional sport: a microscopic exploration of what age does to strong men and women.
In New Zealand, few athletes embody that millennial spirit – unfiltered ambition, multi-platform self-promotion, scepticism of tradition and power structures – more than Williams. Even his nickname, SBW, seems like it was purpose built for internet headlines and social media ubiquity. But Williams, as he will attest, isn't getting any younger – this past year being a vivid reminder.
At one point during his prime, Williams was making a play for the tag of best and most revered athlete in the country, New Zealand's LeBron James. Williams, like LeBron, is also outspoken on social media about politics and social justice – preeminent purveyors of the Twitterfication of sports. But Williams' body hasn't held up as well as LeBron's. A decade of training and pushing himself across multiple sports, has left Williams bruised, battered, and increasingly brittle. His cross-code hopping – what made him so innovative in the All Blacks midfield in the first place – might also be the thing that cuts his rugby career short.
And yet, Steve Hansen and the All Blacks selectors seem to be persisting with Williams as the starting second-five, providing he stays fit. And after the All Blacks' 16-9 loss to Ireland, where Hansen's men missed Williams' power and creativity, it's easy to see why. Williams does things on the rugby field that no one else in the country does, even in his current iteration. No one in the All Blacks midfield runs at the line as hard or defends more astutely. Few possess his vision and tenacity. Even fewer have the ability to split defences open with one flick of the wrist.
This past week, Williams – who knows his own physical condition and value to the team more than anyone else – hinted that he is determined to continue playing for the All Blacks well past the World Cup, even opening the door for a possible return to rugby league. "The last couple of years have been tough with injury, but I still have the fire inside me. I still feel fresh," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I'm not sure if league is in my future at 33 [but] if there are offers, I will examine it with my family and go from there."
Whether Williams can translate that fire into form is another question. But regardless, it read like a statement of intent, a gentle reminder that this old dog may yet have a few new tricks up his sleeve.