From ‘mercenary’ to hero ... the rise and rise of All Black Sonny Bill Williams
THE town planners for Takapuna Beach on Auckland’s North Shore must have been poetry buffs as there are both Byron and Tennyson Avenues traversing the coastal suburb.
Perhaps this nod came due to the closeness of the stunning beach, that has an almost poetic beauty about it, near where the Irish team stayed on Byron Avenue for the best part of a week before heading to central Auckland yesterday to be in closer proximity to Eden Park ahead of the first of their three test matches against New Zealand.
The thought of Byron Avenue named in the honour of the great poet brings to mind the movement of romanticism. Romance in terms of this particular school of literature is not just concerned with the idea of romantic love but more with a celebration of breaking beyond the ordinary and looking to the more exotic and heroic aspects of life.
If you are looking for exoticism and heroism, it can be found aplenty in Auckland this week. To Irish sensibilities the All Blacks conjure up the exotic pinnacle of world rugby, while the Kiwis see the our Wallaby conquering exploits of last September as something of an act of heroism.
If you are in search of a player that encapsulates a sense of flamboyancy, and something just a little out of the ordinary then, Sonny Bill Williams may just be your man.
The 26 year -old Auckland native of Samoan heritage, on his father’s side, cut an impressive dash at a press event yesterday morning.
It is strange to see how differently Williams is painted in the New Zealand media, compared with at the start of the Rugby World Cup. Many saw the former rugby league star as a mercenary simply hunting for a World Cup medal and the bragging rights of being an All Black before returning to a lucrative rugby league career in Australia.
For the moment, a slight question mark still lies over the precociously talented back’s career, but after being part of the World Cup winning squad, he has become something of a media darling here.
Williams may only have 14 caps to his name, half of which came from off the bench but it is the mark of his prodigious skills, star power and ability to switch codes so successfully that has both the Antipodean and wider rugby media so enamoured.
It also helps that the All Black, as well as looking the striking part with his lofty physique adorned with traditional Samoan tattoos on his right arm and also on his calf, came across as a colourful yet approachable character.
Like many of his international teammates, Williams is surprisingly soft spoken for such an imposing figure. When asked to explain what it means to become an All Black, his face lights up.
“It is really special, but we all understand that we are only caretakers of the jersey, as there is so much good talent coming through to take your spot if you don’t play well.
‘‘It is a pressure cooker and you have got to perform.”
Williams pauses again before adding: “You know, it is not just an honour for yourself, playing for these guys but it is for your family as well, so it is very special.”
It would appear he is a natural showman on and off the field as when asked about what he makes of the Irish, a flash of pain crosses his face as he says: “Look at what they did to the Wallabies in Eden Park and look at what Scotland did to Australia this week. The Irish are going to be very difficult”.
However, he continues to talk the opposition up giving an interesting insight into his time playing for Toulon,
“Hopefully we have the edge, but I have played against some Irish boys in my time in France, and knowing from then, they have a very tough mind set, like all Irish so we always have to be on edge.”
Was Sonny Bill aware of Declan Kidney’s reputation as a conservative selector as he remarked: “You know that ten, twelve, thirteen combination that won the European Cup (for Leinster), they have been working really well together and I think they will as well for Ireland”.
Yet the man Williams heaped praise on not just to me but also in radio and print interviews for the New Zealand media is still very much the centre of attention for Irish plans this weekend “Ireland have some world class backs starting with big Brian O’Driscoll. Whoa, he is some player! I have always admired how he plays.”
Perhaps O’Driscoll’s ears were burning. During the Ireland team announcement press conference he showed that this admiration was mutual, explaining: “obviously, having been a bit of a League fan watching the NRL, he was pretty impressive then, he has grown into his role and understanding the intricacies of rugby union.”
The Irish captain continued:“but he brings a particular spark to things, first and foremost with his offloading game and his skillset. But I think within the All Black set up, he has really bought into the team first mentality. I think he has evolved really well as a result of that. He has come on leaps and bounds.”
This evolution from rugby league to the top of rugby union pile was highlighted by Hansen yesterday and hit the Kiwi headlines with him likening the centre’s transition period of four years to that of recent guest to Irish shores, Brad Thorn.
When I ask if him he knows that his one handed passing has become a particular favourite trick to imitate by budding schoolboy rugby players in Ireland, a broad grin breaks across his face “ah, that is pleasing to know”.
In true modern sports star fashion, he expounds, “Oh, on my Twitter page I actually noticed I have a good few Irish followers who write quite good I always enjoy reading.” He then asks me “so could you give a shout out to them?”
So, if you are following Sonny Bill on Twitter in Ireland, he sends his best regards!