Ali Williams solid in comeback for Auckland
Returning All Black Ali Williams won the praise of his coach as he helped Auckland to a comfortable 36-16 national rugby championship win over North Harbour at Albany yesterday.
And he would no doubt have earned a nod of approval from Blues coach Sir John Kirwan and All Blacks selector Grant Fox, who were eyeing him from the stands for bigger things down the line.
The 31-year-old has been sidelined since the June tests against Ireland with a knee injury.
The 75-test veteran got through a solid hour's work in his first game for Auckland since 2007 as other more serious leg injuries have kept him out of the provincial scene in recent years.
Williams was a dominant force at lineouts and restarts with his work in the air and he got about the park to contribute in other areas as well.
The victory assured Auckland of a place in the semifinals and Auckland coach Wayne Pivac is looking forward to having Williams for the business end of the championship.
"I was really pleased with Ali," Pivac said. "We looked at 40 minutes but he wanted to keep going at halftime. In the end he ran out of gas but certainly the kick-offs and things like that which are so important after scoring points ... and he took them with ease.
"Obviously he's a little bit rusty but he'll be much better for this for sure. Unless he wakes up and the knee has blown up, he'll be with us on Thursday."
That's when Auckland play Otago in Dunedin. A win there will give them a chance of a home semifinal with the two teams ahead of them, Wellington and Taranaki, playing each other next weekend in the last round.
"It was mission accomplished really. We were a bit Jeckyll and Hyde but we looked good when we held on to the ball and put some phases together," Pivac said of the patchy five-try effort against a struggling Harbour side.
"We've secured a place in the semifinals. Now we have to get our game taken care of against Otago and then sit and watch what happens with Taranaki and Wellington."
If Auckland end up on the same points as either of those sides they will host a semifinal, having beaten both of them during the course of their seven-win effort so far.
Auckland's form was in stark contrast to Harbour who once again had sloppy defence to blame for a ninth consecutive defeat.
The Battle of the Bridge was never in doubt given the strikepower Auckland enjoy out wide, especially at fullback where Charles Piutau continued his outstanding season.
Auckland 36: Charles Piutau, Gareth Anscombe, Angus Ta'avao, Daniel Braid, Dave Thomas tries; Anscombe 4 con, pen.
North Harbour 16: James Parsons try; Codey Rei con, 3 pen.