The All Blacks have a nickname for Ali Williams, their tall and athletic second-row forward from Auckland. They call him "Comical Ali". As far as the British and Irish Lions are concerned, he is about as funny as a house fire. Williams took the tourists to the cleaners here yesterday, reducing their line-out to its component parts and ensuring they would have no platform worthy of the name from first minute to last. Oh yes, he scored a try, too. If the Lions ever see him again, it will be far too soon.
Sadly, they will be seeing him in Wellington next weekend. Chris Jack, a world-class lock from tip to toe, is bad enough news, thank you very much. If Williams is going to make a habit of playing like this, the Lions might as well pack their troubles in their top-of-the-range, fur-lined kitbags and go home now.
Actually, that is not quite right. The problems at the stadium known as the "Caketin" will start if they allow Williams to perform as he performed in this utterly one-sided opening Test. The Lions had picked Ben Kay, the principal organiser of the impregnable England line-out when they won the World Cup in 2003, specifically to counter Williams, but Kay has been way out of form since he arrived home from Australia.
He was nowhere near the mark yesterday - had he been any more anonymous, the police would have sent out a search party - and with Shane Byrne, the Irish hooker, making a serious hash of the throwing-in, the Lions were denied so much as a sniff of decent possession from a phase by which they had set considerable store.
Byrne was selected for his throwing. On this evidence, Sir Clive Woodward might as well have picked Jason Robinson for his scrummaging. (Come to think of it, Robinson should not have been selected full stop, but that is a different story).
Another Robinson, the England coach Andy, openly admitted that the line-out malfunction cost the Lions any chance of victory, citing bad calls, poor lifts and a lack of awareness as to where the All Black jumpers were situating themselves. The one thing he omitted to mention was Byrne's marksmanship, which had more of the Eric Sykes than the Eric Bristow about it. We can safely assume he felt sorry for the hapless Irishman.
Williams, a strapping 24-year-old who manages to make the likes of Kay and Danny Grewcock appear normal-sized, had no such problems. The New Zealanders pinched 10 of the Lions throws - a calamitous figure, far in excess of Woodward's worst nightmares - and the middle-man was responsible for most of the wreckage. He also scrummaged powerfully, giving the All Black front row something to bite on in their crucial battle at the set-piece, and galloped around the paddock with energy to burn. Only a second-rower's display on an epic scale could have stolen the man-of-the-match plaudits from the outstanding Tana Umaga. Williams came close to delivering it.
This time a couple of years back, he was in Woodward's bad books for giving Josh Lewsey, the England wing, a severe helping of "shoe pie" during a one-off Test in Wellington. The visitors left New Zealand with a rare victory in their back pockets and a feeling of grievance over the local disciplinarians' failure to throw the book at the miscreant. Yesterday, Williams made a far greater nuisance of himself in a far more acceptable manner. He was, as the Lions coaches conceded, a serious pain in the rear end.
"We honestly didn't spend a great deal of time studying the Lions' line-out," he said afterwards, "and we certainly didn't know their calls. From my point of view, it was a simple matter of marking the bloke next to me and contesting the ball. We knew it was an important part of their game, but hey, I love a line-out. Put me in one of those and I'm a happy bloke."
Needless to say, the try - his second at Test level - came directly from a Byrne throw gone to the bad. It was too simple for words: a sure-handed hoovering up of the loose ball, a straight run towards the line with Dwayne Peel, the little Welsh scrum-half, sticking to him like a wart on his neck, and a decisive plough through the tackles of Lewsey and Stephen Jones. Daniel Carter, the golden boy of New Zealand rugby, fluffed the conversion, but it did not seem to matter, even at the time. Eleven points up, the All Blacks were over the Southern Alps and far away.
He is no mug, this Williams. He played football, tennis and cricket at age-group level before identifying rugby as a potential meal ticket. Woodward, for one, must wish he was making life difficult for people at Wimbledon or The Oval, rather than on home territory. Unfortunately, he is over-sized and over here.Reuse content