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Sonny Bill loses way after initial impression

Wales had JPR, their fellow reds in Cork have the incomparable JBM, and we thought New Zealand had unearthed their own three-lettered legend in SBW. Not only does it not work phonetically however (even France's DSK trips off the tongue, so to speak), but now it's barely working at all. So whatever happened to the whirlwind that was Sonny Bill Williams?

Last November the strapping centre, once of rugby league and then of Toulon, was spreading panic everywhere he went with his phenomenal ability to lay the ball off accurately, regardless of how hard he was being hit. Here was a man who could change the course of a game, literally, single-handedly.

Having made the big decision though to forsake France and the euro for NZ and the local dollar, he has turned the Kiwi public right off by throwing doubt on his future post-World Cup. It seems his uncertainty is not unrelated to the ABs' tie-up with a soft drinks sponsor which precludes him from flogging his own favourite energy tipple.

And hey presto, Ma'a Nonu, who not long ago was being touted as the next man to travel north from NZ, is being lauded by Graham Henry as the "best inside centre in the world." Barring an injury, SBW looks like being an RWC extra instead of a star.

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The highlight of our trip to New Zealand and Australia last summer -- well the NZ leg anyway -- was the firestorm that raged around a colleague who wrote something unkind about the town of New Plymouth, thinking it would never be read in a place like New Plymouth. Little did he realise that New Plymouthers spend every waking moment surfing the net looking for unfriendly waves breaking on their shore. And man did they react.

The crown jewel of Taranaki railed against the criticism of being dull and dreary. And now they have ammunition to back up their claims: Yarrow Stadium, their ground with Mount Taranaki in the background, has been named third best venue to watch rugby. Anywhere.

So Cardiff's Millennium Stadium was top, followed by Suncorp in Brisbane, and then, eh, Yarrow? The decision was made by NZ Rugby World mag, and it took into account the whole experience from access and egress to atmosphere to post-match crack. Two Irish stadiums made the top 10: Croker at number four and Thomond Park came in at nine. We promise to pay more attention when Ireland arrive there this week.

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What a treat awaited the Scots when they landed on Queensland's Gold Coast last week: the tape of the Ireland v England debacle at Lansdowne Road. While the players were being told to think only of things Romanian, backs coach Gregor Townsend was addressing the issue of Manu Tuilagi and the damage he might do to the Scots' midfield when they meet in Auckland on October 1.

We wonder though will the Scots have recovered by then from the shock to their system of going from the beautiful, warm weather of their Queensland training camp to the less than beautiful weather of Invercargill, on the tip of NZ's south island.

Last Wednesday for example it was sunny and 16c in Qld. Meanwhile in Invercargill the recommendation was to wear four layers of clothing plus one windproof layer for temperatures that read 7c but felt like 2c.

Perhaps the Scots are hoping for a repeat of 2003 when Ian McGeechan had them training their butts off in the glasshouses of Edinburgh's Botanic Gardens in preparation for the steamy heat of Townsville, their base in tropical Qld. Except that when they arrived there it was unseasonably cold. So they're hoping for more of the same on the south island this time -- as in, unseasonably warm. In which case they will need to watch out for the great hole in the ozone layer right above Invercargill. Hard to win down there.

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The renowned English love of wrestling might explain their physical superiority over us last weekend. One observer was gobsmacked by the intensity of the 'king of the ring' contests going on in their training camp, where the winner stays in until beaten. And that was just the backs. Another exercise features one player trying to fight his way past two defenders who are allowed knock seven shades out of him. Small wonder they looked so confident in the one-to-one stuff with Ireland.

-- Brendan Fanning

Sunday Indo Sport