All Blacks coach Steve Hansen: Sonny Bill Williams has only his fitness to prove
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/112859628/-

2019-05-20 03:59:43

Injured midfielder Sonny Bill Williams has received a notable endorsement from the All Blacks coach as he works through a tight race against time to prove his readiness for the World Cup.

Williams has not played any rugby since injuring his knee playing for the Blues against the Stormers at the end of March. Since then the 33-year-old has had a minor surgical procedure and has been working back to game readiness.

Hansen confirmed at a media standup during a "foundation day" in Auckland for North Island All Blacks, as well as Ben Smith and Owen Franks from the south, that Williams was one of a number of injured internationals due back soon. "Sonny is back running, so he's probably a couple of weeks away," said the coach as he worked through a heartening list of Cup contenders on the verge of returns.

Hansen said Franks (shoulder) and Smith (hamstring) were getting closer to playing again, while hooker Dane Coles (calf) was reported to be "progressing well".

"Owen is coming along nicely," added Hansen. "His injury is one we won't really know if he is up to the rigors of it till he gets out there on the park and Bender (Smith) is back running. With hamstrings you don't want to go back too early and redo it because then it becomes a major problem. They'll take their time with that."

Others were on more favourable time-frames. Skipper Kieran Read's "stinger" was not considered serious, while Brodie Retallick's wrist is just a couple of weeks away. Hansen wasn't sure about Waisake Naholo's knee setback in South Africa, while it was only "personal reasons" holding back fit-again loose forward Liam Squire.

But it was Hansen's comments on Williams that are sure to pique the interest of the country's army of pundits, some of whom have been suggesting the veteran midfielder is running short of time to prove his selection worth in a position awash with high-calibre contenders.

At second five alone Williams is up against the Hurricanes' Ngani Laumape, Crusaders' Ryan Crotty and Braydon Ennor, the Blues' Ma'a Nonu and possibly even utilities such as Jordie Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown in what is shaping as an extremely tight selection.

But Hansen told a large gathering of media in south Auckland that Williams had nothing to prove other than his physical readiness for a tilt at a third World Cup. He was a key impact player off the bench in both the 2011 and 2015 triumphs.

"I understand why people would say he's running out of time. But is he really?" said the All Blacks coach in a clear endorsement of his veteran No 12. "He's already proved himself. He's played 51 tests. That's a lot of test matches; that's a lot of proving.

"What we need to see is him getting back on the track. Then we've got to ask ourselves is his fitness good enough for him to be selected in the team? We play five test matches before we have to name the World Cup team, so does he deserve the opportunity to show us whether he's still good enough?

"Of course he does because he's played 50 test matches, and all those boys in midfield who have played for us at some stage will get an opportunity to show us they're good enough.

"Personally I think they all are [good enough], but we can only pick four, or even three, depending on what we do with the rest of the squad."

To that end, Hansen admitted the upcoming four Rugby Championship tests were essentially World Cup trials.

To that end they would name an extended squad to cover the first two matches against Argentina in Buenos Aires on July 21 (NZT) and against the Springboks in Wellington a week later to allow for the fact most players involved in the Super Rugby final would not make the trip to BA.

There would then be a trimmed-back squad for the Bledisloe back and forth against the Wallabies on August 10 and 17 and, finally, an even tighter group of just 31 to head to Japan for the tilt at the threepeat.

Hansen was giving little away on Monday around the No 10 position and said the thinking on whether they would need a third specialist or cover it with a utility for Japan remained "fluid".

He did not want to pressure contenders behind Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga by commenting on them, but did note Highlanders youngster Josh Ioane was "going well" and was "playing with confidence".

At halfback he hinted at a potential change in the pecking order behind Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara with incumbent Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi struggling for game-time at the Chiefs.

"Brad [Weber] is playing really well and leading well, and Te Toiroa has come back from his off-season probably not where he should have been. Yeah, I'd like him (Tauriorangi) to get more minutes, but Brad's playing really well, so that's exciting."

And Hansen was rapt to have Sam Cane back on the field with the Chiefs after his long recovery from a neck fracture in Pretoria last October. He had two stints off the bench in Saturday night's defeat to the Blues at Eden Park and came through encouragingly.

"He's in  here now with a smile on him as wide as the Grand Canyon … He was excited about being back. When you get something taken away and you think you might not ever get it back again, when it comes back it's a real pleasure and joy. You can see that on his face."

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