ABs name squad, wait on SBW
Sonny Bill Williams (File)
Wellington - Star centre Sonny Bill Williams is expected to be added next week to the All Black squad for the inaugural four-nation Rugby Championship, although his name was missing on Sunday from the 28-man line-up announced by coach Steve Hansen.
The New Zealand Rugby Union says it is finalising arrangements with Williams's new Japanese club, the Panasonic Wild Knights, which will likely allow Williams to play in the All Blacks' first two matches against Australia as a replacement for injured centre Conrad Smith.
Williams has announced he will leave New Zealand rugby to play in Japan on what is reported to be the largest single-season contract ever signed by a rugby union player. He will then return to Australia's National Rugby League for the 2013 season.
Williams, who has played 17 Tests for the All Blacks since 2010, was not expected to be considered for the Rugby Championship because of his imminent departure for Japan. But an eye injury ruled Smith out of the All Blacks opening matches against Australia at Sydney on August 18 and Auckland on August 25, forcing Hansen to reconsider his selection.
If the Wild Knights agree to allow Williams to defer his arrival for the Japanese club season, which starts in September, he will likely line up in midfield against the two early matches against the Wallabies. Smith is expected to be fit to play in New Zealand's third Championship match, against tournament newcomers Argentina, in Wellington on September 8.
Williams's late addition to the squad is likely to be as polarising as most other aspects of his multi-faceted professional career.
He walked out on a contract with the Sydney Bulldogs in the National Rugby League in 2008 to join the French rugby union club Toulon, receiving a five-year ban from the NRL which will expire in time for his return next year.
While at Toulon, Williams indicated his desire to play for the All Blacks and within two years had been fast-tracked into the All Blacks side. Though at times he seemed to struggle to come to grips with tactical and other elements of rugby union, he became an All Blacks regular over the next two season - playing in last year's World Cup-winning team - and quit the Crusaders to play for the Chiefs who on Saturday won their first Super Rugby title.
Judicious career choices have therefore allowed Williams to become a World Cup and Super Rugby winner in only two years in New Zealand.
At the same time, and controversially, Williams had a clause inserted in his contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union which has allowed him to pursue a new career in professional boxing. He won the vacant New Zealand heavyweight title and is unbeaten in five fights, though his opponents to date have been journeymen.
New Zealand rugby fans have been divided over Williams. While he has star power and has been a crowd-puller at Super Rugby and international level, many fans do not see him as the game-breaker he has been portrayed.
His refusal to sign contracts for more than one season at a time and his flirtation with boxing also caused many to doubt his commitment to New Zealand rugby, doubts reinforced by his decision to leave after only two years.
Other features of the All Blacks squad named on Sunday are the inclusion of the uncapped Blues prop Charlie Faumuina. The 25-year-old Faumuina was a member of the enlarged All Blacks squad named to prepare for June Tests against Ireland but missed selection for the three Test matches because of an injury.
"He had to wait a while to get over his calf injury before he could be selected officially in the All Blacks, so it will be exciting for him and his family," Hansen said. "He's an outstanding front rower and we look forward to seeing him play at the next level."
Winger Cory Jane returns after also missing the Irish series because of injury, displacing Zac Guildford. Flanker Liam Messam, who was co-captain of the Chiefs team that won the Super Rugby title, has also received a recall.
"We are all looking forward to the new Championship and the various challenges that it will bring," Hansen said. "But we also know that we will need to step up from where we were in the recent (Ireland) Series.
"We now have the opportunity to take our game to the next level. The three best teams in the world (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) will be playing each other, and with Argentina joining in for the first time it's going to be hugely exciting, not only for the teams involved, but for rugby fans as well."
New Zealand squad:
Backs: Israel Dagg, Hosea Gear, Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Aaron Cruden, Daniel Carter, Piri Weepu, Aaron Smith.
Forwards: Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Richie McCaw (captain), Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina*, Wyatt Crockett, Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu.
* denotes uncapped player