Sonny Bill Williams made a humble start today to his much-hyped dream of becoming an All Black, making his New Zealand rugby debut on a rural paddock in a minor club match. But such is Williams reputation that a crowd of 3,000 including the All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith turned out to watch his Belfast side beat Lincoln University 22-8. It was Williams' first game since the European Challenge Cup final in May after which he turned down a world record offer of US$5 million (Dh18m) to stay with French club Toulon and then underwent knee surgery.
But he had no complaints after scoring a game-breaking try in his 50 minutes on the field before leaving when his hamstring tightened. "It was about trying to get that touch back up. I was a bit off with my defence but hopefully it will be like a snowball effect - start off here and gradually progress," he said. "I know I've got a long way to go and we started off today here at Belfast and we got a win so it's all good."
The match was played at Belfast, a rural community on the outskirts of Christchurch in the Canterbury Crusaders catchment area. Williams' planned road to the All Blacks is to play Super 15 rugby for the Crusaders. Far from the manicured fields and impressive stadiums where Williams built his reputation as a rugby league star in Australia and a union player in Europe he was still able to work his magic with a solo try early in the second half with the score locked at 5-5.
Williams made a tackle inside his own half, regained his feet to toe the loose ball ahead and then gathered up possession to run 45-metres unchallenged to the line. But it was his one-handed off-loads and crisp passes to the wings that were the stand-out features of his performance. "It's something I'm trying to add to my game. The passing, hopefully I can build on that and add it to my game instead of being a crash and bash kind of player."
For the man recogised around the world by his given names "Sonny Bill" and even initials "SBW" it is a calculated gamble to achieve his dream of playing for the All Blacks at next year's rugby World Cup. The All Blacks are already packed with talent in his coveted midfield position. Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have proved a potent partnership this year, while Benson Stanley has been blooded at inside centre with the Test-experienced Luke McAllister, Isaia Toeava and Richard Kahui in the background.
But Williams said he relished the challenge. "It's one of the reasons why I came down here. To see if I can first make the Canterbury team. It's a long way towards pursuing my dream." Such is the New Zealand interest in Williams that the local newspaper in Christchurch devoted half its front page to his New Zealand debut. The preview of the evening Tri-Nations rugby Test between the All Blacks and Australia, which world normally rate a mention on the front page, was relegated to the sports pages.