All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has backed the "integrity" of Roosters back-rower Sonny Bill Williams and admitted he would be "very hard to leave out" of the All Blacks 2015 Rugby World Cup squad if he switches back to rugby next year.
"I'll just clear one thing up - I don't think his integrity is in question at all," Hansen told RadioLive on Sunday.
"One of the things about Sonny is that his integrity is genuine. If he says he's going to do something, he'll do it. I think going back to the Roosters originally was a prime example of that. That was done on a handshake when he left because someone [Roosters chairman Nick Politis] helped out."
Williams' decision to stick with the Roosters for one more year has been met with a mixture of frustration, surprise and phlegmatic pragmatism in New Zealand, and Hansen's defence of the code hopper made it clear he would have no problem obliging Williams' desire to return to New Zealand in 2015.
"He didn't sign anything with anybody and he's deliberately said to everyone, 'Look, I'm not going to make a decision until after the league's over,' so I don't know where you can question his integrity," Hansen said.
Williams' desire to win back-to-back titles with the Roosters in 2014 has complicated his path back to the All Blacks. He could not crack the All Blacks' starting XV in the 2011 World Cup campaign and although he overtook Ma'a Nonu at the start of last year's Test season, Nonu has added another dimension to his game - an array of tactical kicks - since then.
But Hansen believes Williams can force his way back into the squad, at least.
"I think he'll be back for the World Cup," Hansen said. "He wants to play in the World Cup so that means he has to come back and play Super 15 in 2015 and he'll be like everyone else in that competition. Everyone will be eligible to be selected for the All Blacks if they play well enough.
"And if he's in the form, we know he can produce. He'll be very hard to leave out."
Williams may also face competition from the raw but exciting Blues midfielder Francis Saili in 2015, but the injury troubles of Richard Kahui, who is off to Japan after four shoulder reconstructions, and the decision of Rene Ranger to take up a contract in France means Williams has fewer midfield rivals than he might have had. Ranger's departure, in particular, has robbed the All Blacks of a bruising ball carrier and offloader in his prime.
Hansen was also supportive of Williams' decision to declare his availability for the Kiwis after the squad was announced, even though it means blameless Storm back-rower Tohu Harris was punted from the rugby league World Cup.
"What you can question is why did [Williams] change did he change his mind about going to New Zealand league," Hansen said. "Well, people change their minds all the time and he was just brave enough to say, 'I am available to play if you want to pick me.' He didn't pick himself.
"I think the league guys made a decision to pick him because they believe he's going to help them retain the World Cup ... they have picked him and good on them.
"I hope he plays really, really well because I'd to see New Zealand retain the World Cup in league. It would be great for the sport and it would be great for the country."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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