New Zealand gripped by talk of Sonny's debut

Prospect of 'the next Lomu' taking on England today is dominating the agenda, reports Winston Aldworth in Auckland
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The Independent Online

When Sonny Bill Williams takes to the field at Twickenham this afternoon, he will embark upon the most eagerly awaited All Black debut since Jonah Lomu.

A lot of good All Blacks have come, made their mark and been knocked out of World Cups since Lomu's first appearance against France in 1994, but it is fair to say no debutant has dominated the New Zealand rugby public's discussions quite like the league convert they call SBW.

Down here, they pride themselves on being a discerning rugby crowd. Oh, how they sniggered when England poured good money after dumb, signing Lesley Vainikolo hot on the heels of their previous dud league recruit, Andy Farrell. But it is fair to say all that antipodean scepticism went out the window when the New Zealand Rugby Union unveiled Sonny Bill, a player still essentially untested at the highest level, impressive though he has been simmering just beneath it.

When the NZRU splashed their cash outside of their own circles for the first time, they were aware SBW is blessed with the sort of physique and visage that makes women not mind so much when their partners have the game on the telly. He has the happy knack of putting bums on seats.

But what does Williams actually do on the park? Well, he's very strong and has great balance, he keeps the ball free of tacklers and he makes nice offloads and the occasional clean break. It does not sound much by way of comparison with Lomu – who ran the length of the field at Formula One pace swatting defenders aside for laughs – but, faced with the cool efficiency of modern defences, a half linebreak and a precise offload count for much.

Playing him at outside centre is a gamble; most of his rugby thus far has been in the No 12 jersey, where – for Kiwis in particular – the defensive lines are subtly different. But privately head coach Graham Henry will be aware that no England back has run a meaningful attack on the outside shoulder of an All Black centre since Prince Obolensky in 1936. On a dull day at Twickers, the No 13 jersey might be a decent place to wet the feet of a new man.

But at the heart of SBW's arrival is the small matter of next year. Even the staunchest New Zealand rugby traditionalists are aware that tried-and-true rugby approaches have failed to bring a certain trophy to their shores since 1987. Raised on rugby league and honed in French club union, Williams comes from outside the environment that has failed the All Blacks at World Cups for two decades. Oh well, seems worth a shot.

In the here and now, there is the small matter of Henry's third Grand Slam tour to be addressed. And these days "small matter" seems sadly appropriate. It took 73 years for the All Blacks to successfully complete their first Grand Slam of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. This one could be Henry's third since he took charge of the All Blacks in 2004, hectic schedules cheapening the prized collection of northern scalps.

Victory this afternoon should all but confirm the third "Graham Slam", England being the big dog in the pack. For Scotland, Ireland or Wales to beat the All Blacks would border on the unbelievable to Kiwi sensibilities. Still, we live in a universe where Sandra Bullock can win an Oscar and anything could happen.

So, cause for Kiwi confidence today? Certainly. But neither Henry not Williams will be getting ahead of themselves. In that other much-heralded debut, Jonah Lomu – at 19 years and 45 days, then the youngest All Black cap – tasted a 22-8 defeat. Welcome to the big time, Sonny Bill.