Head to head: Should Sonny Bill Williams start for the All Blacks against the Lions?

Sonny Bill Williams is one of a raft of contenders to play in the All Blacks midfield against the British and Irish Lions.
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Sonny Bill Williams is one of a raft of contenders to play in the All Blacks midfield against the British and Irish Lions.

OPINION: Steve Hansen has some big calls to make around his midfield to face the British and Irish Lions and none could be bigger than whether to usher back Sonny Bill Williams. Rugby writers Marc Hinton and Hamish Bidwell debate the hot topic.

MARC HINTON - Yes

I'm going to put a proviso on this statement first. And it's that Sonny Bill Williams comes out and produces something eye-catching in the way of form over the next three weeks (and potential four matches) for the Blues before the All Blacks squad to face the Lions is announced on June 8.

Because he needs to.

Williams has not played a lot of footy in 2017, coming off his long spell out recovering from the Achilles tendon rupture he suffered at the Olympics. His first game was off the bench against the Highlanders in round 7 in Dunedin, and then he started against the Hurricanes, Brumbies and Waratahs before picking up a head knock just before halftime in Sydney that saw him miss the back half of that match and last Friday's home victory over the Cheetahs.

So the next three or four games are going to be big for Williams, just to shake off the last remnants of rust, prove his sharpness, and demonstrate that he's still got the playmaking ability to change a game at the test level.

Sonny Bill Williams of the Blues left the field after a head knock during the round 11 Super Rugby match between the ...
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Sonny Bill Williams of the Blues left the field after a head knock during the round 11 Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Blues in Sydney.

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He doesn't need to be off-the-charts good. But he does need to be better than he has been so far, with too many errors and misjudgments for anyone to be confident about him starting against the Lions.

That said, if Williams does take the step up I see him going straight into the All Blacks midfield, alongside Ryan Crotty who's playing the house down for the Crusaders and is fast emerging as the Conrad Smith of the new generation All Blacks.

Ryan Crotty, the Conrad Smith of the new generation All Blacks?
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Ryan Crotty, the Conrad Smith of the new generation All Blacks?

Why, you ask?

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Well, three things stand out.

First, Williams, in his own way, has been loyal to the All Blacks in that he has hung around in New Zealand, when he easily could have bolted for much, much more elsewhere.

Yes, some of that is about his own ego and unfinished business with the All Blacks, but after playing five seasons (and two World Cup triumphs) as the backup option behind Smith and Ma'a Nonu, there is a case to be made that he deserves a crack in the No 12 jersey now.

There is also a nice feel about him and Crotty as a midfield tandem, with their qualities and personalities complementing each other much in the same way as Smith and Nonu's did. It's a pairing that deserves at least a shot.

Anton Lienert Brown had a great breakthrough season last year, but will have to step up again if he is to figure against ...
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Anton Lienert Brown had a great breakthrough season last year, but will have to step up again if he is to figure against the Lions.

Lastly, the incumbent, and find of 2016, Anton Lienert-Brown hasn't exactly been playing the house down for the Chiefs. Time is on his side, too, in terms of getting the chance to back up on that standout rookie campaign.

For me there are three clear midfield options to face the Lions in probably the most competitive position in the All Blacks: Williams and Crotty; Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa; and Crotty and Lienert-Brown. You can make the case that all would get the job done.

And that's with all due respect to George Moala, Rieko Ioane, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor, Jordie Barrett and others also sniffing round the position. Kiwi rugby is awash with midfield talent right now.

Malakai Fekitoa of the Highlanders could be a midfield option for the All Blacks.
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Malakai Fekitoa of the Highlanders could be a midfield option for the All Blacks.

But factor in the high stakes of the series, the likely physicality and SBW's renowned X-factor, and you have a decision that, form permitting, Steve Hansen should have no hesitation making.   

HAMISH BIDWELL - No

It's five years since Sonny Bill Williams did much in rugby.

Given the lack of outstanding candidates to play midfield for the All Blacks against the Lions, it's tempting to say Williams needs to or deserves to start. Fact is he's done nothing to justify that privilege.

Unrealised potential is the story of the 31-year-old's sporting career.

He might feel he's been building a grand and diverse legacy, but he's actually upped and left too many places just at the time he was beginning to achieve something.

If you disregard the manner of his departure from Canterbury-Bankstown, the bottom line is he only scratched the surface of what he was capable of there.

After that it was stints with Toulon, Canterbury, the Crusaders and finally the Chiefs. That last stop marked Williams in his rugby pomp.

He led the Chiefs to a Super Rugby title with a succession of dominant performances at second five-eighth and was rewarded with a starting berth for tests against Ireland and Australia.

Only he had a handshake deal with Sydney Roosters boss Nick Politis and also fancied a payday in Japan on his way back to the NRL.

When he took the Roosters to the 2013 title, thanks to another string of impressive performances, it appeared Williams had the Midas touch. The next season was decent, but the Roosters couldn't convert a minor premiership into a second title. And then he was off. Again.

A back injury meant 10 games was all Williams could manage for the Chiefs in 2015 and he was unable to dislodge the Ma'a Nonu-Conrad Smith partnership in the All Blacks midfield.

Sevens beckoned last year, which was a failure.

He's hardly fired a shot this season, partly thanks to the Achilles rupture suffered at the Olympic Games, and more recently a head knock. One of Williams' few appearances came on April 15 against the Hurricanes when - to be absolutely fair - he played very poorly.

This isn't meant to be a history lesson. It's just that where Williams is concerned you have to go back in time - quite a long way back actually - to find a period where he demanded selection on performance and not just history or reputation.

The sadness here is that the All Blacks could really do with him right now.

You imagine the steady and heady pair of Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienart-Brown have the best chance of starting the season as New Zealand's midfield combination. They'll do a fine job but are unlikely to keep too many Lions up at night.

Other options - if the selectors are feeling brave - might be Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala or Rieko Ioane. None are especially accurate or reliable and Ioane might have a job to do on the wing, given Julian Savea's form and the stop-start seasons of Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo.

Williams' size, fend and offloading skills make him a handful. But the recent body of work is too limited to hand him anything other than a bench role.

 

 

 - Stuff

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