Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former All Black and World XV lock ALI WILLIAMS talks about growing the game, South Africa’s future lock pairing and facing off against the Springboks at Newlands on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: What elements have to come together in order to win the Rugby World Cup?
Ali Williams: A bit of luck, plenty of preparation and a mindset that is unshakeable. I believe the World Cup is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. It didn’t matter what happened before, during or after, we knew as a collective from one to 15 what we needed to do to win the World Cup.
Sport24 asked: You duelled with the Springboks 14 times during your All Blacks career. What was your most memorable Test match against the Boks, and which locks did you most relish rivalling?
Ali Williams: The 19-0 Tri-Nations win at Newlands in 2008 was special. It was a pretty good achievement to keep the Springboks scoreless. In terms of direct opponents, it was always an honour and privilege to lock horns with Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, but also a huge challenge. It will be good to have my big mate Bakkies playing with me rather than against me come Saturday.
Sport24 asked: At 38, can Matfield still cut it? And who will form South Africa’s future lock pairing?
Ali Williams: No doubt. I believe Victor is still one of the best locks in the world. However, he probably won’t be around for too much longer, and because lock play is all about combinations, Heyneke Meyer will soon be searching for a new pairing. South Africa has always produced great locks and perhaps the combination for the future is Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth. The reason Victor and Bakkies were so good was because they were a settled combination and knew how each other operated. The Du Toit-Etzebeth partnership has the potential to prove a success.
Sport24 asked: What is your take on Meyer’s tenure? Has the Springboks’ game evolved?
Ali Williams: Meyer’s achievements in the game speak for themselves and the Springbok play is constantly changing but, that is not just the Springboks, that is world rugby. Players are becoming more adept at managing certain game situations. The Springboks, like other top outfits, start and lead the revolution by introducing new players and different dynamics in the mix, which is exciting.
Sport24 asked: That said, why do you believe the top-ranked All Blacks remain the team to beat?
Ali Williams: The All Blacks remain the best team in the world because the players love what they do and represent a country with so much passion and support for the game. What makes the All Blacks special is that they always want to be better. As a group, they never stop learning and growing.
Sport24 asked: The Highlanders claimed their first Super Rugby title. What lessons can be learned?
Ali Williams: In terms of tactics, I believe every team in the world can learn from Highlanders’ Super Rugby success. Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown did a fantastic job and the Highlanders were one of the best coached teams in the tournament. Tactically, I would put it down to players who were able read the situation and coaches who dissected and knew what to expect from their opponents. The Highlanders succeeded because they always brought something different and challenged each other. But I believe you can learn even more about them through their team ethos – the way the collective interacted with one another both on-field and off underlined the unique team spirit they boast.
Sport24 asked: The Blues crashed and burned this season. Will Tana Umaga reignite their flame?
Ali Williams: I always want to see my former team do well, but unfortunately it was not their year. Even though John Kirwan’s on-field results may not have been the best, he added a lot to the off-field environment, which is something the public and media don’t see. However, bringing Tana on board is brilliant. He commands respect as a legend of the game. And, as a young coach, is building an impressive portfolio. He will offer the Auckland-based franchise fresh ideas and playing patterns.
Sport24 asked: What led to your 15-year career, and has professional rugby become too serious?
Ali Williams: My longevity in the game can be attributed to the enjoyment I derived, the friendships I made and my willingness to tackle fresh physical and mental challenges. If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life. I understood the responsibilities of being a professional athlete, but still remembered to live life and have fun along the way. The opportunities for players to be themselves in the modern era are very limited. I believe it’s important that the game doesn’t lose the uniqueness of special characters. Forums need to be opened so that players can be themselves.
Sport24 asked: You were set to play a match in America next month. Why the interest stateside?
Ali Williams: I was poised to play a one-off exhibition match for the Rough Riders, a side based in Philadelphia, but it was cancelled because the game wasn’t sanctioned. However, it remains an aim of mine to explore the possibilities in the States because rugby is a global game that we all want to grow. America is a country passionate about sport and there is plenty of money there. It’s a global game so everyone has to be involved, but does that mean that lower-tier countries should be involved in high-level events? My answer would be: only if they are competitive and in a good state.
Sport24 asked: What is your mentality heading into this match? Will you go lightly on your hosts?
Ali Williams: Definitely not. As a composite side, we know what we have signed up for and aim to play well. Whenever you step onto the field, your objective is to beat the other guy. We are aware of the importance of the game in terms of the Springboks’ World Cup preparations and want to give a good account of ourselves. We may be in Cape Town, but we have not come here to have a party.
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