Marc Hinton: Promise aplenty as Sonny Bill Williams returns to the rugby field
OPINION: He's back. And what a beautiful sight it was to see Sonny Bill Williams on the field playing proper rugby again.
Even if his introduction didn't quite do the trick for the Blues who crashed to their fourth defeat of the season, and were leapfrogged by the Highlanders into the wooden-spoon slot in the Kiwi conference.
We had to wait until the 55th minute of a brilliant, brutal, breathtaking Kiwi derby between these two desperate sides under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin to see it, but the Offloading One finally made his entry into Super Rugby in 2017 off Tana Umaga's bench.
He hadn't played a game of XVs rugby since the 2015 World Cup final, and of course he'd been through that ill-fated Olympic sevens campaign last year which ended with abject team failure and a torn Achilles tendon for the man himself.
But he's worked painstakingly to get himself fit again, and if Saturday night's pulsating contest, won splendidly by the Highlanders 26-20 in a titanic arm-wrestle, is any guide, he will soon be starting matches, and eventually slipping on that black jersey that means so much to him.
It wasn't all perfect from Williams, who missed an early tackle on the rampaging Liam Squire, and bobbled one crucial late pass along the ground, allowing the Highlanders to clear from deep on defence at a key moment in the contest.
But on the 67-minute mark we saw exactly why he's such an influential performer when at his best. He sliced through between Joe Wheeler and Squire to charge upfield, then stepped Pat Osborne like he wasn't there.
Then came the offload. It had to, didn't it. He popped the ball majestically to Sam Prattley, and it wasn't his fault that the replacement Blues prop butchered a certain try by not shifting it on. Soon after there was another princely offload to Matt Duffie that all but put the speedster away.
In the end Williams couldn't conjure the score his Blues so desperately needed, but the snapshot was so enticing it will be hard to wait seven days till next week's clash against the Hurricanes on Eden Park for more.
But enough about SBW.
There was plenty more on offer elsewhere in a high-tempo, highly entertaining contest. The halfback battle alone was almost worth the price of admission. What a contrast in styles it was between the speed and precision of Aaron Smith and the power and pace of Augustine Pulu.
Both imprinted themselves on this contest admirably, and in their own styles.
Smith is in the process of refinding his mojo and rebuilding his confidence, and seven rounds into this season he looks well down that path. He's not quite Warren Gatland's "most influential player in the world" but is a long, long way from the shell of a man who masqueraded through the back end of the international season in 2016.
Pulu, too, is trending in the right direction. With Tawera Kerr-Barlow bolting the Mother Ship, the power-packed Blues No 9 has an ideal chance to force his way into the All Black pecking order, behind Smith and the terrific TJ Perenara.
There's been a bit of talk that Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa might find himself usurped by 20-year-old Blues wunderkind Rieko Ioane. But not on what we saw in this stirring contest.
Ioane struggled to imprint himself upon the game for the first three-quarters, and then shifted out to the wing to accommodate the arrival of Williams to the midfield.
But Fekitoa had a huge game for the Highlanders. He scored a try, carried with gusto and was defensively on point. He looks to be back right near his best.
Others impressed. Squire was a monster off the bench for the Landers. Ben Smith provided the poise when it was required at the back. Elliot Dixon and Luke Whitelock loved the physical battle too.
Matt Duffie continued his rapid progress for the Blues, and what a sight it was to see Charlie Faumuina in knee-pumping form.
But this was the night SBW made it back. More and better is to come. But it wasn't a bad starting point.
- Sunday Star Times