SBW’s absence will cut deep

RYAN VREDE writes that rugby will desperately miss the freakish talent that is Sonny Bill Williams.

Williams has played his last Super Rugby game for at least two years, having agreed a short-term deal with Japan’s Wild Knights before returning to rugby league. He will start in the All Blacks’ first two Rugby Championship Tests, with coach Steve Hansen prepared to accommodate him ahead of alternatives. He is a match winner. Hansen is no fool. It is that simple.

It is uncertain whether Williams will return to union in 2014, although it is expected he will. Indeed he intimated that he had contractually committed to a league return before he had found his spiritual home at the Chiefs. His celebration upon scoring this evening said everything you need to know about his feelings for the franchise’s players and their supporters. That relationship and the desire to play in the 2015 World Cup for the All Blacks may be strong incentives to return.

The Chiefs collectively were excellent in securing the title. But the defining characteristic of the greatest players is their ability to produce an inspired moment that proves to be a decisive action in matches of the highest significance. Williams delivered such inspiration in the 19th minute.

Taking the ball on the cut from the brilliant Aaron Cruden, who now is surely the natural successor to Dan Carter, Williams eluded Beast Mtawarira, brushed aside Anton Bresler and stepped Lwazi Mvovo before offloading in the tackle in a move that birthed their first try. It killed the Sharks’ resistance, their belief, their resolve.

And like the greats, Williams’ value has transcended what he offered technically. Bryan Habana once told me that when he looked at Fourie du Preez in the change room pre-match or at critical times during games, his belief was lifted because he knew the scrumhalf had the potential to be the difference between winning and losing. Williams has had Du Preez-like influence on these Chiefs.

Not since Jonah Lomu has a player had this impact on the game.

He was a force in 2011 but is now a refined player – more intelligent, aware, street smart, and as a result more unpredictable. Lending similes from his love and aptitude for boxing – his trademark offload remains his haymaker, but he has added a punishing jab and body work to his repertoire.

Some credit here must go to coaches Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith, who have understood the value of engineering mismatches for the midfielder, rather than asking him to carry the ball up in the early phases. In handling the ball less but in more favourable situations, Williams’ threat has been amplified. And in an environment where the elite sides’ defence is virtually impenetrable, Williams is the one player to consistently thrive.

Williams has now won every trophy on offer in the southern hemisphere since his return to New Zealand, and, tellingly, has played a central role in each of those successes. Rugby has given him plenty of hardware, improved him technically and soaring celebrity, as well as less tangible but more valuable things like friendship, brotherhood and emotional maturity. In turn he has given the game and it’s disciples too many breathless moments to count and regular reminders of what genius looks like.

I hope he’ll be back. Rugby needs him to come back. It is lesser without him.

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