Sonny Bill Williams is back at last for the All Blacks…..or not…..
Update: Sonny Bill Williams’ much anticipated return to Test rugby was put on hold on Thursday when illness ruled him out of the All Blacks squad for their clash with South Africa in Wellington.
Kick-off is at 09:35 SA time.
The All Blacks said early on Thursday that Williams would start on the bench in Saturday’s Rugby Championship fixture, but he was scratched from the squad just a few hours later.
A team spokesperson told reporters that Williams, 33, had been feeling unwell during the week and would be replaced by Jack Goodhue.
The big midfielder has had another tough year with injury; he broke a wrist in Cape Town while touring with the Blues this season and had minor knee surgery which ruled him out of the first two tests against France.
And then, when he got his chance against the French in Dunedin in late June, he injured a shoulder which has ruled him out until now.
Williams is coming in fresh, so easing him into the test may be the wisest course. He played only six of 16 games for the Blues this season and so this test against the Boks, the All Blacks’ traditional enemy since the two nations first clashed in 1921, will be only his eighth match of the year.
Such are his qualities, though, and in particular his ability to change the course of a match with an offload and his vastly improved defence, that Williams remains a key weapon for the All Blacks.
With Williams on the bench and Ngani Laumape out with a knee injury, the starting midfield at Westpac Stadium consists of Ryan Crotty, back from the concussion he suffered against the Wallabies in Sydney on August 18, and Anton Lienert-Brown, who has been superb off the bench in the last three tests.
Lienert-Brown will likely lose the No13 jersey to Crotty once Williams returns to full match fitness but he deserves his start because he has been performing at a consistently high level. Not surprisingly, centre Jack Goodhue, after starting the two tests against Australia and last week’s against Argentina in Nelson, has been given a rest but he, too, has been an excellent contributor and should be pleased with the start to his test career.
There is a minor surprise at fullback, with Jordie Barrett picked in the No15 jersey and Ben Smith shifted to the right wing, meaning there is no place for Waisake Naholo. Rieko Ioane returns to the left wing after recovering from a hamstring strain picked up in Sydney.
Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks’ top halves pairing, are back, and the forward pack also virtually picks itself, with Scott Barrett replacing the injured Brodie Retallick.
Patrick Tuipulotu has followed his hat-trick heroics for Auckland with a place on the bench, a return to the black jersey for the first time since he started against Wales in Cardiff last November. Liam Coltman, rather than Nathan Harris, provides hooker cover on the bench.
“We’ve had a good week’s preparation here in the capital focusing on what we need to bring to the game through our skill sets, the intensity of our play and our energy,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
“We know that we’ll have to be at our very best in all these areas to counter an opposition we know will be desperate following their back-to-back losses. That means we’ll have to respond with a quality performance and a real hunger to be better. You just have to look at our last encounter in Cape Town to understand what kind of beast we will be facing.”
All Blacks:15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Jack Goodhue, 23 Damian McKenzie