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'Serious Ali' must punch above his weight

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 11/11/2012
Ali Williams
Photosport
ALI WILLIAMS: "There's always going to be talking points about my selection; good bad or indifferent. At the end of the day there are a group of guys who have put some faith in me. It's about me repaying that and adding value to a team I've been in for so long."

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OPINION: "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest," Paul Simon once wrote in the lyrics to The Boxer, a sad song about a washed-up fighter, who stayed too long in the game.

Taking advice on when to quit any sport is never easy. In rugby the burden of decision for an older player is often shouldered by a coach who just stops selecting him.

Today most coaches have the grace to let players know privately what the future will hold. Finding you're axed by listening to the radio, or reading a paper, has thankfully gone the way of VCR machines and Pacman.

John Kirwan tells a lovely story about travelling in a car with Graham Henry, not long after Kirwan had been playing NRL league for the Warriors in the 1990s.

Kirwan vaguely floated the idea of a return to rugby. Henry didn't say anything, but a small smile tickled the edge of his mouth. "I knew then," Kirwan laughs now, "that the answer was no."

But even in a kinder, gentler era, the demise of team-mates still spooks the players themselves. In his book The Open Side, Richie McCaw talks about the sudden end of Jerry Collins' All Blacks career in 2008.

He says he worried and wondered if "Jerry's fall was a marker for the toll taken in the modern professional game? If so, how many years can any of us count on?"

On this All Blacks tour we're watching the lengthy twilight of the international careers of Ali Williams and Piri Weepu.

Williams is a fascinating case, made more so because we've suddenly been presented with a new Ali to consider, "Serious Ali".

"Comical Ali", the one who dressed as Spiderman for a weird interview while he was a Crusader, the one who put crushed Viagra tablets in Graham Henry's drink bottle, the one who faced many journalists with a passive aggressive attitude that ensured most of what emerged was nonsense, has been in place from the start of his All Blacks career.

Suddenly, during the week in Edinburgh, meet "Serious Ali", who spoke with some force about how much he wanted to be in the All Blacks, and how the knee injury he suffered during the series this year with Ireland was harder to deal with than the two Achilles injuries that wiped out 2009 and 2010 for him.

When his knee malfunctioned "there was no big shining light, no big world cup to chase". His drive to get back in the black jersey was what kept him going.

A cynic might suggest the Mitt Romney-style personality transformation is just good public relations, driven by the debt he owes to a remarkably generous-spirited selection panel.

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But there's good reason to believe that, while public sincerity has never been Williams' strong point, he's now expressing entirely genuine emotions. The proof is not in anything he's ever said, but in what he's done.

While it's tempting to laugh at the idea of no fridge door opening in Auckland without Williams and Sally Ridge jostling to be photographed, what is never photographed is the tedious, potentially soul destroying work Williams has had to do for three long years.

Staff at the Blues recall days where the rest of the squad were on the field, doing the ball work that is the enjoyable part of training, while a limping Williams dragged a grinder exercise machine, a vicious, muscle burning, universally despised, lump of gym equipment to the sideline, to grimly thrash himself to near exhaustion.

Call that man "Deadly Serious Ali", someone who deserves nothing but admiration.

So while I'm one who still considers Williams lucky, on current form, to be on this tour, please don't confuse that with having no regard for his abilities or character.

At his best he was more than a good All Blacks lock, he was a great All Blacks lock, fairly regarded as being on the same talent plane as a Victor Matfield.

What Williams does have now is a golden chance to show how close he can get to that level again, not only for the All Blacks, but also for the Blues, whose need for veterans to build a pack around has never been more acute.

- Sunday Star Times

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