LONDON – Sonny Bill Williams has been given a tacit message from the All Blacks coaches as the world champions prepare for their clash with England on Saturday - they expect a bit more from him.
At his best, Williams provides the All Blacks with huge momentum in midfield but his form has not been outstanding this year and younger rivals for a spot in the centres are pushing him close.
“Sonny has had the least rugby and is probably still finding his top form,” assistant coach Ian Foster told reporters in London.
“I think that it is a fair thing to say. Our midfield now is jumping out of their skin. The last two weeks we’ve probably seen the energy levels and work-rate in that group as good as it’s been all year. The other ones whenever they have gone out, they have done a really good job.”
Beset by numerous injuries, twice World Cup winner Williams played just six games for the Blues and has appeared in four Tests so far this year.
The 33-year-old lasted 80 minutes in just one of those Tests and been replaced during the other three, including one where he spent 10 minutes in the sinbin.
At times, he has reminded the rugby world what he can do with his incisive running into space and ability to free his hands in the tackle and punishing defence, but those moments have been infrequent.
Coach Steve Hansen has said Williams is the type of player that needs a run of games to get up to his best and with time running out to test new combinations before next year’s World Cup, he is expected to be given a start against England.
His likely centre partner Jack Goodhue has been arguably the revelation of New Zealand’s season and, despite having played just five Tests, is looking increasingly likely to be the side’s starting centre at next year’s global showpiece.
Ngani Laumape also put his hand up with an outstanding display, which included a hat-trick of tries, for a second string All Black side in the 69-31 thrashing of Japan last weekend.
Hansen, who is well aware of the strengths of Williams’ pairing with Ryan Crotty, has not had the opportunity to really see his partnership with Goodhue and the duo could be a major challenge for England’s midfield at Twickenham.
Goodhue, who also punches across the line and is a calm organiser of the defence, missed the All Blacks’ 37-20 victory over Australia in Yokohama last month with illness, but Foster said he was now back to full fitness.
“There was a bit of fatigue at the end of last week,” Foster said. “He’s had a couple of really good days of training and looks like he’s 100 percent.”
England scrumhalf Ben Youngs has welcomed the return of Manu Tuilagi to the squad and says his influence could be crucial in Saturday’s Test against New Zealand.
Centre Tuilagi has not played for England for more than two years because of injury and missed their 12-11 win over the Springboks at the weekend with a minor groin strain.
“We know what a world-class operator Manu is,” Youngs told the British media.
“Seeing him in your team settles the boys down knowing he is there. It was great to see him running round today. He is looking good.”
Youngs said Tuilagi’s pace and power could have a huge bearing on England’s ability to go out and beat the All Blacks.
“One thing about the All Blacks is that you are going to have to score tries,” Youngs added. “I don’t like talk of trying to ‘contain’ New Zealand because it implies that we will go out there and see what they have got. It is about going out there and really taking the game to them.”Reuters