It's been quietly overlooked in the euphoria of that comeback against the Springboks but there were a few All Blacks who emerged from that test with a couple of question marks as opposed to exclamation points.

Principal among them was Sonny Bill Williams. Sure, it was only his second test back after a long injury break but he looked well off the pace. Not only that, he missed tackles.

Now 33, SBW is currently looking a bit SBW (slow, battling and wobbly). Back in April, when he'd come into Super Rugby after another injury break, I wrote (in a column about the competition for All Black midfield places) that "Williams has been worried by injury so far this Super Rugby season and has looked vulnerable (he's been shown up for pace a time or two) and error-prone.

"There's nothing too unusual in that. Old SBW often takes a while to get up to full gallop; he is as fit as a rat and there is no doubting his strength of purpose. Even at 34 (his age at the time of the next Cup), he will likely still be a force."


There's no doubt Williams will be in the 51 to go to Japan and Europe; he deserves at least the chance to get his game right in the coming test matches and to dust off one of the All Blacks' sharpest weapons – his offloads.

But you do wonder if he and some of the others named here will be in the 31 to go back to Japan for the World Cup. With the likes of Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienart-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Ngani Laumape around, most of whom can play 12 or 13, there is a chance SBW could be one of the most high-profile casualties.

That's particularly so given the rush defence successfully employed by the Lions last year and the Boks in Pretoria. SBW has looked a bit exposed when his space is cut down. He also doesn't have the kicking game for the little dinks and donks behind the rush defence (though no one in the All Blacks did at Loftus Versfeld, with those tactics usually just giving the ball back to the South Africans).

I tend to think SBW will still go even if most of his participation is off the bench, when those offloads could cause havoc in the last quarter of the game. But those missed tackles jarred – he has always been a telling defender though you get the feeling the need to tackle lower to dodge yellow (and red) cards may be cramping his effectiveness. Old dog, new tricks?

Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Photosport
Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Photosport

Next up: Prop Tim Perry. Highly unlikely to go ahead of the many class props around now anyway. He is a decent scrummager but that missed tackle on Siya Kolisi when Damien de Allende scored was glaring. All Black careers have ended for a lot less.

It may come down to injuries and Perry will be there or thereabouts – but if they take five props to the World Cup, he will be battling to stay ahead of the likes of Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi and the returning Nepo Laulala. It may even be, after that tackle, Angus Ta'avao could move ahead of him now.

Shannon Frizell began his All Black career with a hiss and roar but has now had two pretty quiet test matches in a row. Like SBW, he needs more time and, while he has tackled his heart out, we are not seeing much from him offensively.

Waisake Naholo didn't look all that flash under the high ball against the Boks, as sometimes happens with him. It will have been noted by World Cup coaches everywhere.


His attacking qualities are many and varied but, as this column has pointed out already this season, if the All Blacks are to guard against Beauden Barrett's off days with the boot (yes please very much…), it may have to involve Ben Smith shifting to the wing and another potential goalkicker at fullback.

Jordie Barrett seems best for that or Damien McKenzie, though the latter's defensive shortcomings may tell at World Cup level. That would mean no room for Naholo in the test 23 – a real shame as he scores tries others don't and his value as an extra loose forward in the turnover battles is significant.

Finally, it will be intriguing seeing which openside flankers will be in the All Blacks' 51 with Sam Cane ruled out and the likelihood that Matt Todd will not be coming back from Japan just yet.

Todd will be back in time for the World Cup next year but you get the feeling coach Steve Hansen will want to take a rookie or two away with Ardie Savea. However, there are few genuine prospects at 7 right now.

North Harbour's Dillon Hunt is everyone's first choice after his previous experience on last year's end-of-season tour; his form against Auckland in tomorrow's Battle Of The Bridge clash will be closely watched.

Auckland's Blake Gibson is injured and potential roughies include Otago's James Lentjes (though he too has been injured and may be ruled out), Auckland's Dalton Papali'i, Canterbury's Tom Christie and Waikato's Luke Jacobson – known as a 6 but who has had a good season and seems to have the right set of skills for an openside.