SBW’s got star power

GARETH DUNCAN talks to Sonny Bill Williams about his trademark offload, facing Jean de Villiers, and his love for boxing.

How do you handle all the hype?
There’s been a lot of it back home, but nothing compares to the reception I received during my first trip to South Africa with the Crusaders. I was really surprised by how well the local rugby community took to me. When I arrived at the airport in Cape Town, there were so many fans and I even had to take photos with some policemen. And this was all at 10 o’clock at night! But it’s been a humbling experience. I try not to get myself caught up in all the hysteria and just focus on my game. Whenever I do step out of line, my old folks always snap me back into place. Especially my mother.

How has your conversion to Islam helped you to deal with the pressures of your high profile in New Zealand?
There are things I talk about and things I don’t talk about. I don’t talk about religion.

What role have your parents played in your career?
They come from rugby league backgrounds, so I never played union as a youngster. I left home when I was scouted for league at 15 and I spent a couple of years in France from 2008. I didn’t see them much during that time. In 2010, I was contemplating the next step in my career, which was either staying at Toulon or chasing the All Blacks dream. My mother was incredibly influential in getting me back home.

What role did Tana Umaga play in your transition to union?
During our time at Toulon, Tana believed I had the potential to become a good union player and he helped me a great deal with my development. The big advantage is that we’re similar players. We’re both centres, like the physical part of the game and look to offload. I spent a lot of time with him at training and playing alongside him, so I could always pick his brain and get advice.

How has union added to your game?
My understanding of the game has improved and I can now express myself a lot more on attack and defence. It’s been difficult with my transition from a forward in league to a centre in union, but I’ve managed to cope. A sign of a good sportsman is being able to adapt to different situations and I’m always trying to evolve as a player. I’m still a rough diamond, so hopefully you haven’t seen the best of me yet.

Your ability to offload in the tackle has given your game an extra dimension.
It isn’t a planned thing. It’s a natural skill from my league background. As a forward, the aim was to keep the ball alive and we did so through offloads. But I don’t deserve all the credit. An offload is only as good as the strike runners around you.

Why did you sign with the Crusaders?
They’re the most successful franchise in New Zealand and I knew that if I joined them I would improve my game by playing with the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. The fact that Brad Thorn is now regarded as one of the best second rowers in world rugby was also motivation. Like me, he was a former league player who switched codes.

How’s life in Christchurch after the earthquake?
We were lucky in the Crusaders squad not to lose any loved ones. I have a sister and brother living in Christchurch, and thankfully neither of them were hurt. But the city doesn’t have the same vibe that it had and things aren’t the way they used to be. So that’s been pretty tough for all of us to cope with this year. There are many more hardships, especially for the citizens directly affected.

How did your partnership with Carter go in Super Rugby this year?
Dan has been the best flyhalf in world rugby for a long time, so I was excited to have the opportunity to play with him at the Crusaders. He’s taught me a lot in a short space of time. He’s taken a lot of pressure off me from my inside and he knows my strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, I take the pressure off him from his outside and we work in tandem.

There’s big competition among the All Blacks’ midfield. How do you plan on cementing a starting spot?
There’s plenty of competition alright, but that’ll just get the best out of us. I just want to keep working hard and play the best footy I can, and hopefully that will get me into the mix. I made my debut at outside centre, so I can cover both positions which could also give me the edge. I have more space at outside centre, but I have no preference on where I play. It’s good for my game to be versatile.

What do you expect come Tri-Nations time?
Just the opportunity to play against the best teams in the world. That’s another reason why I came down to New Zealand, to see where I stand against world-class players. Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie were my first big test in Super Rugby and they’re both playing good footy at the moment. In Jean, there’s no better inside centre to measure myself against.

How did you get into boxing?
It’s a funny story. I was asked by a good mate to fight in a charity event and agreed. But when I put on a pair of gloves for the first time,I immediately thought I couldn’t do this. I eventually got used to it and ended up loving the sport. I’m blessed that people want to watch what I do, so I was able to start a career. Boxing is something I enjoy doing away from footy, and it keeps me fit and sharp at the same time. It adds balance to my life.

What are your plans for after the World Cup?
Right now, I want to keep my options open. My main focus will just be on training hard and doing well on the field to make sure that I can make an impact for the All Blacks. I’ll make a final decision at a later stage.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.