Former All Black Ali Williams speaks to Patrick McKendry about past glories, past mistakes and the need to keep challenging yourself.

Ali Williams – former All Black, businessman, part-time television commentator, and occasional comedian – is in the mood to confess.

He hasn't always got things right off the field, he says now that he's retired from the game, and that's without getting into his arrest in Paris last year for attempting to buy a Class A drug alongside former Wallaby James O'Connor on a night out.

Williams, 37, won't talk about that; he's keen to move on after being fined $2300 and seeing his contract with Racing 92 torn up, but there are other mistakes he's keen to acknowledge – at least in general terms.

Speaking in his capacity as a newly confirmed member of the rugby team versus the cricketers in the Hot Spring T20 Black Clash at Christchurch's Hagley Oval on January 25, Williams is quick to acknowledge a few things.

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"I'm no angel, I made mistakes, but I can sit here and say I stayed true to myself," he tells the Herald. "I've grown and I'm better than what I would have been without sport and the game of rugby. I've no regrets I took the path to play rugby. At 37 when you chuck something in you still have a lot of living to do so I'm excited by the next challenges in life and where they take me because that was a good chapter."

Asked if by mistakes he means that night in Paris with O'Connor, he says: "No, not at all, I'm referring to me as a person. I've made mistakes. In saying things I've put my teammates in positions I shouldn't have. I put myself in positions I shouldn't have; being on a rugby field and making stupid decisions. The fear in the modern age is making mistakes but you can't learn without making mistakes. If you're not yourself then what's the point in striving to achieve something?"

He is asked: "Do you want to talk about that night?"

"What's to talk about?" he replies.

"Was it a difficult chapter in your life?"

"As I said, what's to talk about? I'm not going there."

He's always been one to dance to his own tune, has the man previously known as Comical Ali.

There was the time, in 2009, when he wore a Spiderman costume to a media event before Crusaders training ahead of a match against his former Blues side; a tactic, it was explained by the franchise later, to "alleviate the pressure of a big week".

There was also the time he sat alongside All Black teammate Sonny Bill Williams at the top table of a press conference during the 2011 World Cup when he decided he would answer his namesake's questions for him (and vice versa), an attempt at humour which fell a little flat.

He has also been one to challenge stereotypes, and that's usually not such a bad thing.

He was known as a superb athlete as an All Black lock – he played 77 tests from 2002-12 – paving the way, probably, for the sorts of athletes who have followed in the second row, but he wasn't a big fan of the game while at school.

Former All Black Ali Williams poses on the deck of a boat in the Mediterranean in 2015. Photo Instagram.
Former All Black Ali Williams poses on the deck of a boat in the Mediterranean in 2015. Photo Instagram.

Now, on a beautiful early summer morning in Auckland on a media call to promote next year's cricket event, he is batting in the nets (with one pad) against a couple of senior club cricketers and two 11-year-olds enjoying the first week of their school holidays.

Williams still looks in good nick and possesses a natural timing with the cricket bat that suggests he could have been a very good cricketer. "I've tried to go to the gym and keep in shape but I've been horrific and have realised how hard it is for people who don't do it for a living," he says. "You've got to find a way."

He dispatches the first ball he faces to an imaginary cover boundary, before sending a few back over the bowlers' heads. "I was thinking 'I can't get out to them'," he says later. "You never lose that, that competitive streak.

"I played first XI cricket at school and loved it," he adds. "Every kid in New Zealand wants to grow up to be an All Black or a Black Cap. I didn't know where it was going to go… everyone knows my rugby story – I didn't want to be a rugby player - but I loved my cricket. I loved the mental element to it; it challenges you, but consistency probably wasn't my forte."

Williams was an excellent football goalkeeper too, as well as a good tennis player, before a knee condition put paid to the latter. "I played them all, mate - I was never that good at any of them but I had a lot of fun."

Turning back to his rugby career, he says: "I met a lot of great people. You can look at the achievements but it's the people you meet [which is more important], and the person it turns you into."

While in Europe, Williams got regular work as a television pundit and that side of things is picking up with Sky Sports on his return to Auckland with his wife Casey and their two daughters, the eldest of whom is aged five and attending Williams' former school Bayfield Primary.

His main employment is in the building sector where he looks at new developments for a company managed by former New Zealand cricketer Nathan McCullum. Williams also has his own development interests.

As far as working with McCullum goes, Williams says: "It's a great environment; we've got builders, everyone, and everyone knuckles down. It's quite unique – it's pretty close to a sports team; the banter, the challenging, the expectations of success. It's good and I'm very happy. The kids are settled in New Zealand along with my wife so no complaints from this kid at the moment."

There will likely be opportunities for broadcast work at next year's World Cup in Japan. "Look, you're always interested," he said. "Why? Because of the passion for the game. Where that goes, I don't know. I always want to be around the game. I wouldn't say I'd be a coach but you never say never. I still have an aspiration to help the game, more from a commercial element that from a coaching side. You never know."

Williams says he can only watch in awe at the All Blacks these days. He's talking about the players' skills and athleticism but also about how the management team, in particular head coach Steve Hansen, keep challenging themselves, and to almost reinvent themselves. This, particularly the latter, is something that is clearly close to Williams' heart.

"You can't compare eras with eras; the rules, the game, the ref, everything changes," he says. "You can only look in awe at the way they're playing. I have only admiration for what they're doing because some of these athletes are freaks.

"I can only compare myself to the second row. You've got one of the best rugby players in the world in the second row in Brodie Retallick and you've got someone like Sam Whitelock, who's almost being overshadowed and he's incredible.

"We're very lucky at the moment. I think the game is in great shape and I think what the All Blacks are doing is amazing. I also think the way the coaching staff are constantly challenging themselves to get better is amazing. If you're in the same environment for so many years, it's not easy to better yourselves.

"People like Steve and [manager] Gilbert Enoka, [physical therapist] George Duncan and [physio] Pete Gallagher, people who've been there the whole time… that's not easy to constantly challenge yourself and for them to mentally stay on to it and alert… it's very admirable. I just look in awe. I'm like every other Kiwi fan, I just want them to do well individually and collectively."