The smile on assistant coach Ian Foster's face said it all - Sonny Bill Williams' availability has brought some x-factor to the All Blacks' midfield and added real excitement ahead of Saturday night's Bledisloe Cup opener in Sydney.
Williams' drawn out contract saga finally came to a close with the New Zealand Rugby Union and his Japanese club Panasonic Wild Knights agreeing to terms for a two-week deal that will see the star play the first two tests against Australia before moving to Asia.
Given the trouble that the All Blacks went to in securing Williams to cover the absence of injured centre Conrad Smith, there's no doubt they will utilise him in the starting team. He will line up alongside Ma'a Nonu in a midfield pairing that will replicate their powerful combination in last year's World Cup opener against Tonga.
The All Blacks will welcome his form and experience in a pressure-cooker fortnight where they have the chance to retain the Bledisloe if they can beat the Wallabies this weekend and in the Auckland rematch a week later. The third test of the series isn't till October 20 in Brisbane.
Foster said the over-riding emotion was more of excitement than relief as Williams finally joined the squad on Sunday night and ripped into training in Auckland yesterday, having received fitness and insurance clearances to seal the deal.
“It was part of a plan and it took a while to happen, but it's happened and it has given us plenty of time to prepare. I think we are pretty excited by the next couple of weeks with him,” Foster said.
“I know he's pretty excited and I think that's part of what has made it a really easy decision to make.”
Clearly the All Blacks saw Williams' test form against Ireland in June and subsequent efforts in helping the Chiefs win the Super Rugby title as irresistible to negotiating the current shortage of test-hardened midfield backs with Richard Kahui also sidelined.
Ironically, Williams heads overseas and eventually back to rugby league, just when he looks to have really cracked the 15-man code at international level after 17 tests.
Foster said the All Blacks had to get back into their groove after sweeping the Irish.
But stepping up another level was going to be crucial against the Wallabies. Williams provided ingredients for that.
“He brings three games' experience in June and it enables us to have a bit of continuity to where we got to in June and I think that's a real positive for us,” Foster said.
“I think he brings a lot of confidence in himself the way he has played in 2012. He reached good levels in June and I'm sure he wants to do that in the next two weeks.”
That applied to the team as well, according to Foster.
They got into the business of specifically targeting their training for the Wallabies yesterday after being in camp since Thursday night, with the first few days more of a refreshing exercise.
“It's the same challenge we had in June,” Foster said of starting this demanding phase, with the Rugby Championship now a four-team home and away affair that includes Argentina.
“Make sure we don't go in too complex, make sure we don't over-train and make sure we don't try and put too much information in . . . just go in there with a very simple game. But clearly when you are playing Aussie you need a few more options up your sleeve and it's getting that balance right.”
Williams wasn't the only additional face at training yesterday.
Chiefs halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow and lock Craig Clarke also joined in the action along with Hurricanes first-five Beauden Barrett.
They will also be involved today.
The benefit of keeping another first-five up to speed was proved by Barrett's brilliant cameo in the third test blitzing of Ireland after Dan Carter had been ruled out with injury and Aaron Cruden limped off after 24 minutes.
With locking resources down to three specialists, the All Blacks were keen to get Clarke into their mix of methods as well as keep an eye on his knee injury.
And Foster left little doubt that Kerr-Barlow is the next halfback in line.
“He has had a great year and he's a player on the rise. We saw this as an opportunity to bring him in and let him have a look. I think he will learn lots. We've only got two nines in our squad so we are only an injury away from someone having to come in and be on the bench or be in a starting position. It's important he knows a little bit about what we are doing."
The All Blacks name their team on Thursday afternoon and travel to Sydney that night.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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