Sonny Bill Williams' offloading game has seemingly dried up. Those telescopic arms of his have rarely been freed this season to pop the miracle passes on which he has built his name.

He's still managed to grab the headlines though, but not for his creative distribution but for two costly cards: one red against the British & Irish Lions and one yellow against France.

Both of which had a significant consequence in the respective games in which they were shown and both were the result of ingrained habits taken from league.

And yet the curious thing is that he's never played better than he has in the last eight weeks and never has he looked more at home in international rugby.


Not everyone will agree. There's never consensus when it comes to Williams. His history gets in the way of clear judgement and for all that he's advanced this year as a straight running, hard tackling second-five, there will be plenty who will only recall a reckless high tackle on Anthony Watson and a poorly researched decision to palm the ball into touch in Paris as his defining contribution to the All Blacks' cause.

But a fairer assessment would be to say that Williams has come of age this year. He's played - two wild moments aside - with a new found maturity and selflessness.

He's been considered with his offloading, maybe overly so, but the coaches would rather he's governed by conservatism rather than adventure when it comes to deciding whether to let the ball go or not.

There were a few instances in Paris when he brought his call carrying arm up over the tackler, looked to see if he could flip it to someone and then thought better of it.

He held on, increased his leg drive and made good yards with a quick recycle. Ma'a Nonu made his career on the back of doing just that - praised to the heavens for smashing his way over the gainline and getting the All Blacks on the front foot.

That's what Williams has been doing all year and particularly well in the last two tests. He was man of the match in Brisbane for the way he brought a ferocious muscularity to his chores and managed the odd creative pass here and there.

Read more:
Hansen to media - Don't be so hard on Sonny Bill Williams
Steve Hansen's reaction to Sonny Bill Williams yellow card - 'He doesn't know the rules'

It was a bruising, physical effort from Williams that was precisely what he was asked to do by the coaches. He did much the same in Paris - ran hard off Beauden Barrett's shoulder and forced the French to commit defenders to him.

The offloads didn't come but momentum did; space was opened for others and essentially that's all that mattered. Then there was his grubber kick which led to Ryan Crotty's try.

That was an act of supreme skill - a sign of his confidence and composure to first of all pick the option and then to nail it. If he hadn't slapped the ball into touch 20 minutes later, that kick would have been the defining moment of an impressive test by Williams.

As for his defence, it has been world class all year. He's hammered everything that has come near him. Really belted people off their feet, knocked the wind out of them and allowed the All Blacks a means to compete on favourable terms in the middle of the field.

Williams hasn't played quite how everyone expected and when a player builds a reputation for being terrific at one thing and then no longer does it so much, they are often harshly judged to be on the wane.

But Williams has modified his game to suit the team and that's why he's never looked more at home at this level.

He has, maybe for the first time in his rugby career, a true knowledge of his position and the expectations that come with.

He gets now that the real currency is graft: that offloading is a nice to have, not a must have.

What the All Blacks need from him, what will make him effective, is direct, hard running and dominant tackling.