SYDNEY, May 14 (Reuters) - If Sonny Bill Williams is going to succeed in muscling in on test rugby’s most settled centre partnership in time for the World Cup, he will have few better chances to stake a claim than in this weekend’s round of Super Rugby.
Williams returned to the Waikato Chiefs and the 15-man code this season after two years in rugby league with the express intent of playing a part in the defence of the World Cup he helped New Zealand win on home soil in 2011.
Standing in the 29-year-old’s path to a starting berth for the tournament in England later this year are Ma‘a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who on Saturday against the Chiefs team up for the 50th time in the centres for the Wellington Hurricanes.
That is three matches short of their record tally together for the All Blacks -- a partnership which through Nonu’s power and Smith’s guile has formed a rock at the heart of the New Zealand backline for seven years.
While 80 minutes at what looks like being a rain-soaked Wellington Regional Stadium are unlikely to push New Zealand coach Steve Hansen into any definitive decisions, a blockbuster performance from Williams might at least raise a few questions.
Williams partnered Smith while Nonu was rested for last year’s November tour of Europe and ousting the dreadlocked 32-year-old at inside centre presents his best chance of a starting spot with the All Blacks.
“It’s a big game for him and Ma‘a, no doubt a chance to mark up against each other and I think Ma‘a’s going really well I know Sonny will be highly motivated,” Chiefs coach Dave Rennie told TVNZ this week.
One of Williams’s great strengths in both rugby codes is his ability to get the ball to a team mate out of the tackle and it will surprise no one that he is the leading New Zealander in offloads this season with 27 in eight Super Rugby matches.
Nonu, however, has played an integral role in a free-scoring Hurricanes team that leads the Super Rugby standings and he has beaten twice the number of defenders as Williams (28 to 14) in his 10 games this year.
Such dry statistics tell nothing of the context in which those feats were achieved but Saturday’s clash between New Zealand’s top two Super Rugby sides will undoubtedly approach test intensity at times.
Victory for the Hurricanes will all but secure the New Zealand conference and a spot in the playoffs for the side from the capital, so there is plenty at stake for both sides.
Through his forays into the world of professional boxing, Williams knows very well how to build up interest in a contest with a few well chosen words.
The former New Zealand heavyweight champion was, however, keeping his own counsel in the run-up to his bout against Nonu and Smith.
“I think a lot of emphasis or talk will be about that this week but for myself it’s just about going down there and trying to play some good footy and hopefully getting the win,” Williams said this week.
“People will say what they want to say but that’s just where my mind-set and I know their mind-set will definitely be.” (Editing by John O‘Brien)