Lions tour: Sonny Bill Williams braces to confront the mighty beast of the north
Sonny Bill Williams tenses those wide shoulders, narrows the steely eyes and declares: "It's a different beast coming." All that remains to be determined is whether it is predator or prey.
After all the weeks, all the months of anticipation, expectation, and now, finally, of realisation, the All Blacks get to front that much talked-about "beast" in the form of Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions. Williams, for one, cannot wait to test himself on one of the biggest stages in sport.
The Lions only tour this country every 12 years, so it's generally a once-in-a-career proposition for an All Black. On top of that comes all the hype, attention, and magnification of a matchup that really is a clash of the Titans. It is the No 1 team on the planet and back-to-back world champions against the combined might of the four Home Unions of the North.
Give it an eerie theme tune, throw in a few swords and dragons, and you could call it a Game of Thrones. It has that sort of an epic feel to it.
"We have to understand it's a different beast coming, and with that comes expectation, and with that comes another level," said Williams in the wake of the All Blacks' impressive pre-Lions shakedown, a 12-try, 78-0 dismantling of Samoa. With Gatland's men making a similar statement a night later against the Maori in Rotorua, the stage has well and truly been set.
"It would be easy for us to see past performances (the All Blacks have won 12 of their last 14 tests against the Lions) and think we're going to go out and roll them. But [this] is going to be another level," added Williams.
"I have been lucky to have played in big games. I understand what big games bring, the emotions as well as the unknown. We can train hard, and get ready for that, but we have to understand momentum changes, and it's not all going to be in our favour. We have to understand that's the beast we're coming up against."
The 33-cap Williams looks like he has done enough to seal his spot in a tight battle for the All Blacks' dual midfield spots. After a couple of early missteps, he was strong against the Samoans, unleashing that hard-running, pop-passing creative game of his. That followed a standout display for the Blues against the Lions on the same Eden Park sward.
It should be three in a row for the 31-year-old on the All Blacks' home fortress where they haven't been defeated in 23 years, and 38 tests, when the series opens next Saturday night in Auckland.
With the all-purpose Ryan Crotty expected to be over the rib cartilage problem that has laid him low the last couple of weeks, coach Steve Hansen has a big call to make in his midfield. Williams and Anton Lienert-Brown, who looked so good against the Samoans? Or Williams and the heady Crotty?
Hansen has intimated all three hold such value that he will look to carry them all in his match 23, and it could come down to Crotty's readiness and a coin-flip on Lienert-Brown's more explosive qualities, against the decision-making and communication of the Cantab.
Williams continued to hammer the "beast" theme as he looked ahead to the launch of preparations on Monday. Hansen gave his players the weekend for recovery, and to gather themselves for a monumental six days.
"We need to work on the things we need to work on, and part of that is acknowledging the beast that is coming," added the 1.91m, 108kg physical phenomenon. "And they're going to be coming hard. If anyone thinks it's going to be a walk in the park, they're in for a reality check. They're going to come to play.
"We know their strengths. That's the set piece, and that line-speed they bring on defence, and we'll have to look at things to unlock that."
Then came just the hint of a smile from a man who has risen to the top in two sports (rugby and league) and given a third (boxing) a pretty decent shake as well.
"Don't get it twisted, bro, we've got a pretty good team too. It's going to be a good contest."
Williams already had a sneak preview for the special feeling you get as an athlete for a contest like this, and it reminded him why he did what he did.
"I had the honour of being able to run out with the Blues against them, and before the game I remember Rieko [Ioane] looking at me, going 'man, I'm pretty nervous eh, bro'. I was like, 'bro, I'm ****ing myself'.
"But those emotions are why we play rugby. I had the blessing of being off rugby for close to a year and I understood happiness shouldn't revolve around the game, and it is just a game. But those are the emotions you love, and next week definitely brings that."