The boxer can box

RYAN VREDE writes that Sonny Bill Williams is the real deal.

The hype around Williams leading to the Stormers match was immense. Williams, to his credit, didn’t get caught up in it. He spoke of his respect for his direct opponent, Jean de Villiers, and extolled the Stormers’ defence. He said that the match would be his biggest test since his switch from league to union a year and a half ago. He believed it would be the measure of him.

He was not alone in that belief. A month ago Springbok coach Peter de Villiers called it, albeit in a crude manner. Asked for his thoughts on Williams, De Villiers spat: ‘I’m looking forward to seeing Sonny Bill against Jean de Villiers and a Jaque Fourie, who can cut down [his] space … and on the inside you’ve got big, hard tackles coming in from a Schalk Burger. Then we’ll see [whether] the boxer can box, or [if] the dancer can dance.’

The poor delivery of De Villiers’ offering should not overshadow its accuracy. Prior to Saturday, Williams had vanquished the best teams and players the southern hemisphere could offer. But the Stormers, more than any side in the tournament, were equipped to expose any limitations he may have had.

Williams’ response was emphatic, made even more impressive when you consider his masterclass came in the absence of a string of first-choice players, most notably flyhalf Dan Carter. There is substance to this man.

There are two primary ways of measuring his value. The first is obvious – his observable contributions. His offload to Sean Maitland in the build up to Wyatt Crockett’s first try was majestic. Clutching the pill in one hand his arm arced and straightened at blinding speed before he deftly released to Maitland. This while negotiating the attention of two Springboks, one of those being the 2m tall Springbok Andries Bekker.

Review the game tape and you’ll note that Crockett’s second in the 62nd minute can be traced back to a linebreak from Williams. In addition, he created scoring opportunities others couldn’t finish – for Tom Marshall in the 41st minute, for Robbie Fruean in the 45th, and for Zac Guilford in the 49th.

His defence is seldom spoken about, but it is a facet of play he is very adept at. His pièce de résistance in this regard came late in the match with a smash-and-grab effort on the usually elusive Gio Aplon that saw him make the tackle as well as rip and keep possession of the ball.

However, to watch Williams live is to understand that his value transcends the extraordinary handling skills he has become renowned for. You only needed to see the frantic attempts to post reinforcements in his channel when it appeared that he may be the receiver to know that he infiltrated the very psyche of his opponents. When he did receive the ball and carried it to the line, he committed numerous defenders. If they skipped him, those defenders had been drawn off their direct opponents, which created opportunities in the wide channels. This is a characteristic shared by the greatest players.

Ominously for his opponents, he’ll get better. In an interview this week Williams said the Crusaders’ coaching staff had worked intensely with him on picking his moments to attack. He explained that, before he would want to handle the ball as much as he possibly could. But he would often be confronted by a set defensive line when he carried in the early phases of an attacking manoeuvre, which decreased his chances of making a positive contribution (tackle offload, linebreak, linebreak assist). ‘Now I hang back more often, looking for mismatches and trying to exploit those when the time is right,’ he said. It is a frightening prospect to think that a player this gifted is still undergoing a cognitive evolution that will amplify his potency. It is also pertinent to remember that he is just 25 years old.

Some are trying to peddle the idea that he will be the difference between the All Blacks winning the World Cup and another heartbreak. I can’t agree with that. Certainly he will improve them exponentially, but a lack of temperament and not a deficiency in talent has been their undoing in the past. His temperament is yet to be intensely examined in a Test environment, or in a Super Rugby play-off situation.

An absolute judgement can be made on him if he exhibits that quality. He lacks no others.

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