Rugby

As SBW slows, his detractors grow bolder

The gravedancers were always going to be waiting in the weeds for Sonny Bill Williams.

Their time isn’t yet nigh, but there’s no doubt we’re closing in on the day when those who’ve always hated Williams will be able to sup on a large helping of ‘I told you so’. That’s simple maths. And biology. Williams is 32. Physically he’s either declining, or is about to be.

Eventually he’ll slow to the point where the haters – in Williams’ case the term is valid – will be able to justifiably claim that the Muslim rugby league impostor show pony who thought so little of winning a world cup he gave his medal away ain’t all that.

Williams' sins - the greatest of which is being different - will neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

Some believe we’re already there; that the once hot-stepping Williams has cooled to the point he is no longer central to the All Blacks’ plans.

That’s a touch ironic, given he has in fact never been called upon more to serve the black jersey than in 2017.

Williams has started eight tests so far in 2017, and come off the bench in another. The only game he has missed, the third test against the Lions, was due to suspension.

Prior to this season, Williams had never started more than five tests in a single year. Twice he has played more than the nine games he has so far racked up in 2017, but those were world cup years, when he largely came off the bench as an impact player. Even then, he only made 10 appearances. This season is far from finished. Assuming he makes the Northern tour (a fairly safe bet), 2017 will be Williams’ most prolific year as an All Black.

On numbers alone, he has never been more central to the All Blacks’ plans.

"Are we reluctant to get rid of Sonny? Of course we are, because he's a heck of a good rugby player,"

Ian Foster

But numbers are only numbers. Williams hasn’t been a dominant force in 2017. He’s made uncharacteristic errors. The misjudged tackle against the Lions was the most glaring (and costly), and his handling hasn’t been up to his usual standards.

His career has been defined by the extraordinary, but for much of 2017 Williams there has been no ‘extra’ about it: Williams has been plain ordinary.

Emboldened, the gravedancers have begun to sneak out of the weeds. Resident Stuff troll Mark Reason described Williams as an “expensive mistake” - a view that somewhat appears to overlook the fact that the All Blacks just won the Rugby Championship without dropping a match ‘despite’ Williams starting every game.

"Our job as coaches and selectors is to pick the best team every week and that's based on what we see in training and what we see in performances, attitude and all that,” All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster told NZME.

Talking Foster at face value, then, the All Blacks’ brains trust has rated Williams as their best option at 12 in every match for which he has been available this season. So he’s hardly out of favour.

One day, soon enough, though, he will be. The clock is ticking. As Williams descends from what has been a very high peak, the next generation of hugely talented midfield backs are scaling their own mountains.

The crossover point can’t be far away., although Williams may well receive more leniency than usual before the axe falls.

"Are we reluctant to get rid of Sonny? Of course we are, because he's a heck of a good rugby player," Foster said.

For now, then, the gravedancers will have to cool their heels. But they’ll be waiting. They always have been.

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