England do not just have to deal with New Zealand on Saturday, they will also be up against a much improved Sonny Bill Williams.
As if an injury-hit England did not have enough to contend with when facing world champions New Zealand on Saturday, they will be up against a “massively better” Sonny Bill Williams according to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
Last week’s 74-6 thrashing of the United States in Chicago saw code-hopper Williams return to international rugby union action for the first time since August 2012.
Now Hansen is keen to see how the dynamic centre, who scored two tries against the Eagles, fares against 2015 World Cup hosts England.
“We saw what he was like against a tier-two nation, we want to see what he’s like against a tier-one,” Hansen told reporters at the squad’s London hotel on Thursday.
“We haven’t got a lot of Test matches between now and the World Cup starting so we need to get some answers.”
Not that Hansen was in much doubt regarding the talent of the 20-times capped Williams, who has also played rugby league and boxed professionally
“He’s always been an instinct type of athlete, that’s why he’s such a good league player, why he’s a good boxer – he’s got good instincts, good ability to adapt and adjust,” added Hansen.
Williams began his career in rugby league, winning the 2004 NRL title with the Canterbury Bulldogs in his debut season before walking out on the team mid-contract to play rugby union in France.
He contributed to the New Zealand 2011 World Cup win and snared the 2012 Super 15 title with the Waikato Chiefs before returning to the NRL with the Sydney Roosters last year, picking up another title with the side.
And Hansen said the time he’d recently spent away from rugby union would make the 29-year-old Williams a better player in the 15-man game, citing the example of another code-switching World Cup-winner in former New Zealand lock Brad Thorn.
“It’s a lot easier coming back for the second time, I think,” Hansen explained. “The same thing happened to Brad Thorn.
“They struggle when they first come into the game because they don’t understand it but then they go back to another sport but at the same time they keep watching the game they’ve come from and keep growing their understanding.
“I think that’s what Sonny has done very well. He’s always known he’s going to come back to rugby (union) at some point and he’s just kept watching the game and growing his learning and understanding of how to play the game.”
Hansen, asked if Williams, known for both his power and ball-handling skill was a better union player now, replied: “Massively better”.
Meanwhile fly-half Aaron Cruden, who will be alongside Williams on Saturday, said the midfielder’s evolution as a player was also a matter of rugby intelligence as well as physical skill.
“Sonny is a phenomenal athlete, physically and mentally,” said Cruden.
“He works really hard at his game, he’s a true professional. I know even in the short time he has been with us for a few weeks, he’s always asking questions, he’s picking people’s brains, he’s talking to the coaches, he’s having a lot of rugby specific conversations.
“It’s pretty incredible even his performance last week. He had been out of the game for almost two years and to come back and perform the way he did, I think he will gain a lot of confidence from that,” Cruden added.
“For guys like us (Cruden and half-back partner Aaron Smith) who are not the biggest in the team, it’s nice to look outside you and know there’s a pretty dynamic player like Sonny there to give you a little bit of go-forward.”