Sonny Bill verdict: He held his own

BY MARC HINTON IN SYDNEY
Last updated 02:38 07/06/2009
Reuters
HOLD ON: Australia's Matt Giteau is tackled by Barbarians' Sonny Bill Williams while Luke McAlister prepares to weigh in.
Reuters Zoom
Sonny Bill on the charge.

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He may have been on the wrong side of a Wallaby walloping, but there was a resounding chorus echoing out of the Sydney Football Stadium last night that Sonny Bill Williams has a big future in his new code.

Williams' Barbarians were smashed 55-7 by an impressive first-up Wallabies performance at the SFS, with Robbie Deans' men running in eight tries to one as they dominated all areas of a one-sided encounter.

But in his first significant match on the big rugby stage, the 23-year-old Toulon-based New Zealander who turned his back on a glittering league career last July made a pretty decent impression. All things considered.

There's no doubting it was a tough old night on occasions for the former Doggies and Kiwis star, with a distinct lack of quality ball to run on to, some fairly attentive, rib-tickling Wallaby defence to contend with and a steady stream of attackers to test his defensive mettle.

But he came within an ace of making a dream start, only a peach of a tackle from Luke Burgess denying him a try as he slipped Stirling Mortlock's tackle attempt with his first touch of the ball. And there were a number of other touches thereafter that demonstrated the promise and athletic talent the man possesses.

"I thought he went pretty well," said Mortlock, who probably shaded a pretty decent head-to-head against the young New Zealander.

"Quite often when it's 13 v 13 you don't actually get to tackle each other too much. But for some reason a fair bit of the time he tackled me, and vice-versa.

"I said prior to the game he's a freakish athletic talent and I think he held his own tonight."

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans agreed that the long-term All Black hopeful went "pretty well" but also called for some perspective when it came to his still fledgling career.

"The toughest thing for Sonny was that he's going essentially from club rugby into an international where you just don't get the opportunities; you don't get the license to play.

"You could see often he was looking to offload and play a game he would probably get away with at club level.

"But you just don't get that here because the channels close and the contact is more significant."

But Deans also saw enough to offer a promising summation of the Williams game.

"He's obviously a really capable athlete and rugby player, so the more time he gets in this sort of arena I think we'll see him respond pretty quickly."

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Barbarians coach Dai Young revealed that Williams had found the pace of the clash a major challenge, but he too felt the strapping 108kg midfielder acquitted himself well.

"Let's be fair to the kid, let's not put too much pressure on him," said the Cardiff Blues coach. "By his own admission he's learning the game and he certainly stood up and performed admirably.

"But he's the first to say he's got a bit to learn. So let's give him time to do that."

Young agreed with Deans' sentiments that the transition to the high-tempo, hard-hitting international game was something he still had to adjust to.

"He's only played 12 or 15 games for Toulon. The first thing he said after the game was that he was amazed at the step up in speed, how quick the ball gets recycled and how much the ball is in play.

"He certainly enjoyed it and I'm sure he's going to learn a lot from it."

Young also felt Williams' Kiwi compatriot Luke McAlister took plenty out of the contest, despite spending much of it going in the wrong direction.

"I think it was Luke's first game in nearly four months. He was very nervous going in, which was understandable.

"I thought he showed real glimpses, especially when we moved him to 12. He bumped one or two Australians off and got a lovely offload in to Sonny who cut a nice line off him.

"He showed glimpses of what he can do when he's a threat. I tried to encourage him at halftime to take a bit more on himself rather than just be a distributor.

"But he was just glad to get back on the field. I'm sure he's going to get better with the more rugby he plays."

Young felt McAlister, who's being considered for an early All Black callup, was equally comfortable at either first or second five-eighths.

"He's got everything in his game really. He's got that strength, he can carry and he's certainly got that vision and distribution so people can play off him. He's got all the tools to play either 10 or 12 really."

The other Kiwis in the match had a mixed night. Jerry Collins battled away up front; second-rows Chris Jack and Paul Tito found the going tough against the superior Wallabies tight five; Clarke Dermody did likewise; Ben Blair came off the bench to make a real impact; while Justin Marshall and Greg Somerville both looked off the pace at this stage of their careers.

- Rugbyheaven

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