OPINION: Sonny Bill Williams special exemption for the All Blacks end of year tour was a smart and pragmatic play by coach Steve Hansen as he looks to future-proof his midfield ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup.
That view won't be shared by all, but to have left open the possibility that Williams' NRL commitments would rule him out of the November tour would have been tempting fate.
A few short weeks ago the All Blacks were dreading the possibility of midfield rock Ma'a Nonu getting injured.
As it stands, Nonu (shoulder), his replacement Ryan Crotty (cheekbone), and the next-best No 12 in New Zealand rugby, Dan Carter (broken leg) are all injured.
Were the All Blacks playing England at Twickenham this weekend, Malakai Fekitoa would likely be the only legitimate test-ready option to start at second five eighth.
Who would provide midfield cover from the reserves is anyone's guess, but it is not a riddle Hansen will be keen to try to solve on November 9 when England get a second chance at making a pre-World Cup statement at Twickenham, the very venue where the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be played.
And all that is presuming the All Blacks even take all of their senior players on tour, new dad Conrad Smith included.
New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew confirmed yesterday Williams would not need to play in the national provincial championship following his commitments with the Sydney Roosters in the NRL.
NZRU rules state that players must take part in the preceding domestic competition to be eligible for the All Blacks.
However, the board voted on Friday to make an exemption for Williams should he not be able to make an appearance for Counties-Manukau either because of the length of the Roosters' season, or injury.
Instead, his selection will be left to Hansen's discretion.
As is the way with the code-jumping sportsman, the news created an immediate furore among fans and commentators who appeared split on whether he warranted any special treatment.
Many believe the NZRU has already made too many concessions for Williams as he's jumped between league, union, and boxing.
However, the vehement reaction appeared to ignore the fact that the 29-year-old will probably not need the exemption anyway and plans, if possible, to make at least one appearance for Counties Manukau.
''It is still expected he will play ITM Cup rugby, but that is dependent on how the Roosters do in the NRL, and if you ask Warriors fans they would say they are doing quite well,'' Tew said in reference to the Roosters' 46-12 weekend win over the Auckland NRL club.
''The board were asked on Friday what they were comfortable with in terms of how many games he had to play to tick the [All Blacks eligibility] box.
"The board were of the view, which we completely concur with, that we have made a big investment in Sonny Bill Williams and if the coaches believe we get the most out of that investment by taking him on the tour in November then they should have the discretion to do so.''
The Roosters' season could finish as early as September 4, but if they reach the NRL final it could be as late as October 5.
That could potentially leave Williams with just one week to cram in a game for the Steelers, who play Auckland in Pukekohe on October 8 and Tasman four days later in Blenheim.
Tew noted that Williams does meet the NZRU's other All Blacks eligibility criteria as a contracted player who will live in New Zealand in 2015 and 2016.
It would not be the first time the NZRU have used their discretion to waive the requirement to select a player returning from overseas, with Luke McAlister selected in similar circumstances in 2009 after returning from Europe.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks' one-off test in Chicago against the United States Eagles at Soldier Field on November 1 is heading for a sellout.
The Chicago Sports Commission has announced 51,000 tickets to the match have now been sold with a further 4000 on reserve.
Tew now expects the ground will reach its capacity of 62,000, providing a welcome financial boost to the NZRU.
The NZRU was paid an undisclosed set fee for the match, but will also share profits for any tickets sold above 40,000.
Tew said the organisation was now expecting its next financial result to come in significantly better than the $1.1 million loss it had previously forecast for 2014.
- The Dominion Post
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