RYAN VREDE writes that Sonny Bill Williams’ first Super Rugby season has seen him evolve his game rapidly.
It is a testament to the Crusaders midfielder’s prodigious skill and rugby intelligence that he has, in his rookie campaign against the elite players in world rugby, grown his game to the point where he is now arguably the planet’s pre-eminent No 12.
Williams’s primary strength is undoubtedly his ability to offload in the tackle while negotiating the attention of multiple defenders. He leads the competition in this facet of play with 53 offloads, eight ahead of Quade Cooper.
The consistency with which he is able to do this is staggering. Furthermore, he has exhibited its match-changing capacity on numerous occasions, and, most notably, in the biggest matches of the Crusaders’ campaign. The Stormers will attest to this, Williams’ offloads having twice crafted decisive tries in matches against them this season.
However, a string of former players and coaches – the most prominent of the latter group being Springbok chief Peter de Villiers – have predicted that the manoeuvre is too high-risk to be considered an asset, and has the potential to cost his side. It has also been intimated that nullifying his ability to execute this skill would, in effect, render him a non-factor.
But Williams is no one-trick pony. You only have had to follow his development closely to know this. His performance against the Sharks in the qualifier illustrated just how much he has grown his game. In that match he carried consistently and effectively (83% efficiency at the gainline with three linebreaks and 152 metres gained in 16 carries – an average of 9.5m per carry). There were still the trademark offloads, five of them, and this gave him an air of unpredictability which he carried through to Newlands in the semi-final.
Watching him live gives further insight into his development into a rounded rugby player rather than a pure rugby athlete. This is most evident in how he times his involvement in attacks. Early in the season he often sought to carry in the early phases. It is obvious that he now bides his time, preferring to wait for the defensive line to be depleted, then exploiting mismatches.
Defensively he is more measured, although no less imposing in contact. For a player with a rugby league background where monster hits are commonplace, suppressing this natural instinct must take some doing. But he has largely made that technical and mental transition successfully. He makes his tackle and rejoins the defensive line, and players of this ilk are more undoubtedly valuable than ones who can compromise the defensive structure in search of bone-crunching hits.
It would be remiss to not credit an astute coaching staff for their obvious contribution to these facets of his game. Williams’s rapid progress illustrates the value of good coaching. That said, there is work to be done on his distribution in general play, which doesn’t stand up to comparison with some of his counterparts in the game. But he has shown an aptitude for learning quickly.
Williams will take the field against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday a significantly more complete player than the one who debuted for the Crusaders against the Waratahs in Nelson in March. Then his style was celebrated. Now there can be no doubt that there is substance to the man.