Emotional Williams bids farewell to All Blacks
Ali Williams struggled to get some of the words out yesterday but not to show vividly how much his now terminated All Black career meant to him.
We've all laughed plenty with the big fellow over the years as he's delivered his often jovial and always passionate view on rugby throughout a career that's seen him log well over a century of Super Rugby appearances and 77 tests for the All Blacks.
But yesterday it was the tears that flowed as Williams, 32, spoke about his surprise decision and the emotional impact it clearly had. Yes, All Blacks do cry, and they most certainly care, as the big Aucklander demonstrated palpably.
"I've been thinking to myself the end will come at some stage," he said at a specially convened press conference alongside his Blues coach Sir John Kirwan and All Blacks chief Steve Hansen.
"I believe in my gut the time is right now. I've had a pretty special time in the jersey but there comes a time when you need to step out."
Williams said it had not been an easy decision to make, and both Hansen and Kirwan called it "courageous".
But it's also a sensible one. He's now the fourth-ranked lock in the New Zealand game, at best, and at least goes out on his terms, after a decade-long career that's survived four major injuries (two Achilles, a knee and foot).
Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano have all surpassed him in the pecking order, while the likes of the Crusaders' Dominic Bird and Hurricanes' Jeremy Thrush were nipping at his heels.
Williams conceded as much when he admitted he left the All Blacks on pretty firm footing in his position.
"The second row is probably one area through my career where maybe we haven't been the strongest. But now we've got a lot of quality players who will do the job and do the jersey proud," he said.
Williams said there hadn't been one lightbulb moment when the decision to retire came to him. "There's a lot of reasons. I'm having fun at the Blues, it's a new challenge and it's one I don't want shy away from."
He had talked at length with his father about the decision but says the recent birth of his daughter had not influenced him. He's also not sure whether he intends to jump in with the media, but warns if he does "it's going to be different".
What he does know is a special part of his life has now come to an end.
"But you move on," he said. "You've got to. You can't dwell on things, you can't hold on to things. You've got to keep evolving, and this is what I'm doing."
The first test, back at Twickenham in 2002, had been special and a little frightening. "I thought how the hell am I going to do a haka," he recalled.
"It scared the life out of me, but a bit of quality time in front of the mirror and I got the actions down pat."
He didn't like to single out a standout moment in the jersey but said he was proud of himself for achieving something he never dreamed possible. He also acknowledged the ride hadn't always been the smoothest.
"I've made mistakes, but hopefully I've put the jersey first," he reflected. "I'm definitely a better person for those mistakes and experiences. I've always said rugby is part of my life but it's not my life, and this is something that will keep evolving."
Hansen said Williams could walk from the All Black scene with his head held high.
"He's come back twice from career-ending injuries, and he's given a lot to the team. The last couple of years what he's given shouldn't be underestimated. We've had young guys in the frontline and he's been in the back room helping those guys grow.
"Whilst he's been a great player, he's also been a good leader and to make a decision to walk away from it when he's had a fairly good idea he would probably have been picked is a courageous one.".
Asked how he'd cope tonight, in a big Super Rugby game against the Brumbies at Eden Park, the smile finally returned.
"We're going to win," said the Blues skipper. "That will be the best way of coping. I'm still learning, still improving, and if we can get some of these young guys playing to their ability it's going to be pretty exciting."
Ali Williams - the career:
Born: April 30 1981 in Auckland
Physical: 2.02m, 119kg
Super Rugby: Blues
All Black tests: 77
Test points: 35 (7 tries)
Test debut: November 9 2002 v England at Twickenham, aged 21 years, 193 days
Last test: November 17 2012 v Italy in Rome, aged 31 years, 201 days