Williams says it's the team not the jersey
Big Ali Williams shot a glance at his questioner when asked about how it felt having younger All Blacks taking his jersey.
"Hey, hold on mate, it's no-one's jersey," said Williams, a starter in 62 of his 74 tests but a substitute last week.
"The day that this team becomes about individuals, is the day this team will plummet."
Comical Ali has become Stoical Ali, acutely aware of the All Black jersey's legacy.
The one-liners once flew as thick and fast as that other Ali of boxing fame. Ten years ago, when Williams was 21 – the same age as new locking buddy Brodie Retallick is now – it was hard to get a serious response from the affable Aucklander.
Back then, Williams was only a few years out of the first soccer XI at King's College where he was a gangly goalkeeper until he was fast-tracked into the first XV. He had a meteoric rugby rise through the Auckland NPC team and the Blues before finding himself on the All Blacks' northern hemisphere tour in 2002.
Williams made an instant impact from his debut against England and has gone on to become one of the All Blacks' greatest and most durable locks. He was pretty high on life as a young All Black. A decade later, a more reflective character has emerged.
Take his attitude to his reserve role last week.
Williams freely admits he once would have had a raw-prawn reaction to riding the pine in a test match.
"If you had asked me that three years ago, I'd have said, 'mate, if I'm not starting it's b......., blah, blah, blah'."
The mindset now is different. "Where I can help, I do. The end goal for me and this team is for the team to win. I couldn't care where I play, as long as I'm in the team and I'm helping."
He says his new approach can be put down to two key developments. "That's what age does to you and that's the reality of ticking off a goal [a World Cup victory] you've wanted to tick off for a long time."
Six of Williams' 12 substitute appearances have come in the last two seasons. But he's not reconciling himself to a reserves bench berth. He makes that quite clear: "I'm not settling into the role ... But I respect the game and I respect form.
"Everyone's making out I'm playing badly, but I'm not ... the reality is there's a young kid [Retallick] who's going bloody good and there's Sam [Whitelock] who's going bloody good as well."
Williams says the pair "earned" their starts against Ireland. "I respect it. Now it's up to me to come off the bench and say to Shag [head coach Steve Hansen], `now hold on, I'm in this jersey, I deserve to be starting.'
"I love being out there, especially in this jersey."
It still spins the Williams wheels playing beside longtime team-mates Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock.
Age is just a number, the 31-year-old insists. "It's more what your heart's telling you. If you are still enjoying it, then keep going. If not, then do the respectful thing and chuck it in. And I still love it."
The All Blacks have declared Crusaders star Kieran Read fit for the second test against Ireland in Christchurch on Saturday after dismissing speculation he was suffering concussion.
Assistant-coach Ian Foster rubbished the rumour yesterday.
"No, that's not true, he's in a good spot, we just had a half-hour meeting with him."