Sonny’s surpassed the hype

JON CARDINELLI says Sonny Bill Williams has become a more rounded player and will trouble the Sharks’ depleted midfield in Saturday’s final.

2011 was the year of the Sonny Bill offload. Backyard games would have seen kids imitating that signature move, a back-of-the-hand pass that ensured the attacking team’s momentum didn’t die with the ball carrier. It was a move that brought Williams and the Crusaders tremendous success in their march towards the Super Rugby final. It was also a move that demanded an astronomical number of column inches in the press.

One year on, and Williams’ offload is no less effective. The difference this year is that his offload is sparingly used and rarely highlighted as the definitive strength of his game.

The Sonny Bill Williams of 2012 is a far more rounded player than the centre who debuted for the Crusaders in 2011. And it is the less glamorous and less imitable side of his game that could floor the Sharks in the upcoming final in Hamilton.

Credit must go to Chiefs coach Dave Rennie and the ethos he has installed since arriving at the franchise. Credit should go to the forwards for embracing that ethos and producing some dominant performances that have allowed the Chiefs backline a platform to excel.

And to say Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden and Williams have excelled as a 9-10-12 combination is an understatement. Cruden has matured as decision maker, and has also played with a physical determination that has belied his size. Kerr-Barlow has been a threat on attack and defence, as has the robust Williams, who doesn’t get enough credit for the way he reads the game or the impact he makes in contact.

Williams was one of the standouts in last Friday’s semi-final battle against the Crusaders. There is always the possibility that he will unleash that trademark offload, but not enough is made of his strength in the tackle and how this compromises the opposition’s defence. He broke the line on just one occasion last Friday, and on the one occasion he unleashed an offload, the Chiefs went on to score.

The hype around the Sonny Bill offload may have died down in 2012, but the rugby fraternity’s obsession with the idea of offloading certainly hasn’t. Indeed, some have pointed to the Sharks’ offloading game as the reason they have surpassed every other South African team in this tournament.

What those people neglect to appreciate, however, is the fact that the Sharks have also dominated the collisions in the matches where their offload count has been high.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer during the three-Test series against England. I asked him about Willem Alberts, who had just come off two strong performances in the first two Tests. It was clear that Alberts was offloading a lot more and thus perpetuating South Africa’s attacking momentum, and so I asked Meyer if it was something Alberts had worked on.

Meyer explained that Alberts was able to offload in those Tests because he had dominated the collisions. He added that players should not become obsessed with the idea of offloading, and that winning the collision should always be the first objective.

In Meyer’s mind, you can’t risk offloading if you aren’t in a strong position, ie well beyond the gainline, to do so.

There were times in 2011 where Williams was guilty of offloading unnecessarily. There were moments when he threw the ball back after he had lost the collision and had been driven backwards in the tackle. Many said the opposition had worked him out, while others accused him of overplaying the tactic.

2012 has witnessed a more powerful and circumspect display. Williams’ performance at the gainline has been a highlight of the Chiefs’ campaign, and his decision making has improved immensely. The Chiefs don’t waste attacking opportunities, and neither does Williams.

Some will call him a glamour boy who is chasing the big payday, or denounce him as an over-hyped player. But on the basis of his performances in the 2012 Super Rugby competition, Williams is already one of the best players in world, and there is as much substance to his game as there is a marketable style.

The odds are against a Sharks victory this weekend. The Chiefs have shown themselves to be an 80-minute team. The forwards will also be fresher than their Sharks counterparts, who recently made their third overseas journey in the space of as many weeks.

The Sharks’ defence will struggle to repel Kerr-Barlow, Cruden and Williams. They’re also down to their third-choice No 12, with Frans Steyn ineligible for selection and Tim Whitehead ruled out with a broken hand.

At the end of the league stage, Steyn showed why he is rated the best inside centre in South Africa. Whitehead has managed to provide a spark that’s been lacking in previous seasons. Those men will certainly be missed.

Meyer Bosman seems likely to fill the void, and while he has the talent and ability to play a Steyn-like game in midfield, he doesn’t have the form or confidence. It is surely something the Chiefs, and particularly that dangerous axis of Cruden and Williams, will look to exploit.

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