RWC Litmus Test For Sonny Bill
The Rugby World Cup will provide a global spotlight on how much substance there is to the hype that surrounds Sonny Bill Williams Inc.
The five-million-dollar man who walked away from what was then the biggest contract on offer in world rugby to stay with Toulon has now realised his stated dream of being selected for the All Blacks World Cup side.
However, he has still to prove that along with being one of the most talked about players in the World his ability is real and not a myth manufactured by his minders.
When he was rushed into the All Blacks last year after only a handful of provincial games in New Zealand Williams made headlines with an uncanny ability to draw in two or three defenders then deliver a freakish offload.
A year on it seems everyone is flicking the ball out of the back of hand, even front row forwards are doing it, and there is a question mark of what else is in Williams' arsenal.
Springboks coach Peter de Villiers is one who doesn't believe there is much else, saying Williams may impress with backhand passes but he still needs the core skills of rugby.
"He'll spend hours and hours on the things that are not important and never master the most important things of rugby," de Villiers observed.
Even within the All Blacks camp there are ominous signals as coach Graham Henry showed a preference for Ma'a Nonu as his number one inside centre over the 6ft 3in (1.91m) and 17.3 stones (110kg) poster-boy.
While Nonu taunted opposition with his power, aggression and liaison with Conrad Smith outside him, the midfield punch noticeably dropped away when a hesitant Williams was given a run.
Off the field Sonny Bill impresses with his humility and his willingness to spend time with fans but when it comes to the business side of Sonny Bill Williams Inc. it is manager Khoder Nasser who pulls the strings.
When it came time to renegotiate Williams' contract it was not until Nasser confirmed New Zealand had the inside running that the player said he wanted to stay in the country another year.
He adding the only decision was to decide whether to stay with the Canterbury Crusaders or move to the Waikato Chiefs where All Black backs coach Wayne Smith is heading or go to the Auckland Blues to be near his mother.
A month further on no contract has been signed, although the Crusaders who value loyalty are out of the running, and there are reports of a stumbling block over sponsorship rights.
According to the Sunday Star-Times, Nasser secured a contract for Williams with a rival company to a New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) sponsor. The NZRU vetoed the deal and Nasser now wants compensation.
Although it was no surprise Williams was included in the New Zealand World Cup squad -- there were two berths and Henry only had sights on Williams and Nonu -- former All Black Andy Haden said Williams had to consider himself lucky on recent form.
The New Zealand media who talked up Williams a year ago are also expressing unease.
Prominent rugby writer Phil Gifford rates Williams selection a marketing ploy.
"The rapid decline in form for the man who has promised so much can be easily dated, to the farcical boxing bout in June against an injured sickness beneficiary," Gifford wrote on the Rugby Heaven website.
"The man who was showing signs of expressing all his remarkable physical gifts and skills has been a spectator at his own show ever since."
In the Timaru Herald, Jacob Page said Williams has "underperformed when the pressure has gone on."
Page added that with Williams appearing to stall for time on just where his future lies after the World Cup "maybe he knows his freakish powers of flattery are wearing off."
When Henry gave Williams a chance to prove himself by starting in the second Tri-Nations Test against South Africa last weekend, Wynne Gray in the New Zealand Herald, summed up Williams performance as delivering "a nifty offload or two into play but that was about the extent of his influence."