June 07, 2012
Sonny Bill Williams speaks to the media after the announcement of the new All Blacks squad. Photo: Getty Images
New All Blacks coach Steve Hansen paid tribute to Sonny Bill Williams' improvement after selecting him ahead of fellow giant centre Ma'a Nonu for the first Test against Ireland in Auckland on Saturday.
Hansen named three new caps - Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick, Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith and Hurricanes winger Julian Savea - and included only seven players who started in last year's Rugby World Cup final win over France, with injuries playing their part as well as form.
Victor Vito edged out Adam Thomson to take the No.6 jersey vacated by the injured Jerome Kaino.
Daniel Carter, who will become the country's most-capped five-eighth, is back after missing much of the World Cup with a groin injury.
Hansen said Williams' game has gone up "three or four levels" this year as his understanding of rugby has increased and compared him to another rugby league convert success story, lock Brad Thorn.
He said Thorn - a former Kangaroos and Queensland Origin representative who went on to play 59 Tests for the All Blacks, including last year's World Cup final triumph - took about four years to get a proper understanding of rugby union after switching codes.
It had been similar with Williams, who has been in scintillating form with the Super Rugby-leading Chiefs this season.
Hansen said Williams came to rugby union not knowing when to use the specials skills he brought with him.
"This season, we're seeing a guy that's actually understanding the game and the role he has in it," he said.
"We knows he's a freak and he can do whatever he wants with the ball. Having that extra understanding is making him go up three or four levels, so it's been outstanding."
Williams gave plenty of credit for that to the Chiefs coaching staff who include former All Blacks assistant Wayne Smith.
"I like to think I know what I'm doing out there. I know what to call - where to go," he said.
Williams was also aware of the challenge of marking Brian O'Driscoll, describing the Irish skipper as a world-class player who defended like a forward and had the attacking skills of a five-eighth.
Smith's impressive Super Rugby form has elevated him to first-choice halfback with the out-of-form Piri Weepu on the bench.
Retallick, who at 21 will become the second-youngest lock to play a Test for New Zealand, joins 23-year-old Sam Whitelock in a young second row after the retirement of warhorse Thorn.
Savea, 21, and Zac Guildford will play on the wings, with World Cup starters Cory Jane and Richard Kahui sidelined with injury.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Daniel Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Victor Vito, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Res: Hikawera Elliot, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.