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Dublin: 11°C Friday 25 September 2020

Analysis: Sonny Bill Williams serves reminder of offloading X-factor

The 29-year-old centre was in impressive form against Argentina last weekend.

LIKE A HOST of his New Zealand teammates, Sonny Bill Williams is showing signs of heading towards his peak at exactly the right time.

The centre’s return to the Chiefs from his latest stint in rugby league was not quite as sparkling as hoped for in the 2015 Super Rugby season, leading to some concerns that Williams was struggling to re-adapt.

Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams Williams trails out-half Dan Carter. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Certainly switching between codes is not straightforward, although the 29-year-old has extensive experience in both. Instead, the impression at times this year was that Williams was not at his best physically, something he has hinted at himself recently.

The towering midfielder’s latest performance, against Argentina in the Rugby Championship last weekend, suggests that his condition is vastly improved. As underlined by a highly-effective attacking display, Williams’ form is heading in the right direction.

Competition from the established Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, as well as Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa, means Williams is far from assured from a starting place at the World Cup, but his offloading class will certainly continue to interest Kiwi coach Steve Hansen.

Playing in contact

Williams had to bide his time in terms of getting into the game against Argentina in Christchurch, with his only touch of the ball in the opening 10 minutes seeing him knock-on an Israel Dagg offload.

The centre’s confidence is rarely in doubt, but he does seem to mentally feed off making successful offloads. Playing the ball out of contact appears to be close to an obsession for Williams, not too surprising considering how effective he is with this skill.

Offload 1

His opening offload of the night, above, was a typical one-handed flick to the impressive Waisake Naholo, the unfortunate victim of a fractured fibula on his debut.

Soon after came the effort below, one that gives us an illustration of how Williams often creates offloading opportunities for himself.

Offload 2

The key is the footwork before he meets the defensive line. Rather than simply looking to use his power to bludgeon into and through tackle attempts, the Chiefs centre uses his feet to find a more favourable contact situation.

Bouncing back inside off his left foot twice, Williams beats the first-up tackle and then slightly straightens himself to ensure he’s running at Marcelo Bosch’s arm, not directly into his body.

The result is that Williams’ hands are free and the offload follows.

At 6ft 4ins, the former Sydney Rooster possesses a unique reach and that is a major part of his offloading quality. A huge hand span is equally as important, allowing Williams to carry the pill in one paw with some confidence.

Add those physical specifications to Williams’ ability to identify or create space, and offloads like the one below become possible.

Offload 3

It’s a breathtaking moment of individual skill from Williams, and clearly that long reach of his is vital to its success.

There aren’t too many players in the world who can carry the ball into the tackle as Williams does here, his powerful grip meaning the ball is at a relatively low risk of slipping free.

Offload 3.1

Again we have to go back to the footwork Williams uses to create the chance for an offload. After receiving the pass from Dan Carter, Williams immediately has his head up to scan the defence, where he spots tighthead prop Ramiro Herrara in front of him.

This time a step off his right foot is enough to beat the Puma all ends up, while the subsequent burst of acceleration takes him to the outside of the next defender, Agustín Creevy.

That in turn lures Jeronimo de La Fuente inwards from the outside edge of Argentina’s defensive line, his intention being to shut off the passing option for Williams. That fails to account for Williams’ reach and he pops the ball delicately into the hands of the waiting Kieran Read.

Offload 3.2

With his confidence now beginning to peak, Williams continued to terrorise the Argentinians with his offloading game. New Zealand offloaded more than 20 times in Christchurch last weekend, with Williams providing five of his own.

That is perhaps unlikely to be the case against teams performing better than the Pumas did in this fixture, particularly if the opposition can bring greater linespeed and power in the tackle against the Kiwis.

This clash was ideally suited to offloading, however, and even though there were too many loose offloads for Hansen’s liking, it was a perfect opportunity for a player of Williams’ skillset to prosper.

Offload 4

He showed his reach and grip strength again with the above effort in the second half, arguably one that travelled forward to Ma’a Nonu, but also one that highlighted how strong Williams’ grip on the ball is.

Offload 4.2

Soon after, a Williams offload very nearly led to a try for Naholo before the wing was forced off the pitch with the injury that ended his World Cup hopes.

This time, the New Zealand centre was in even more traffic and with less space in which to operate. Undeterred, Williams flicked a beauty out the back of the hand to his wing.

Offload 5

Williams was left out of the New Zealand squad for this weekend’s meeting with South Africa, Hansen opting to allow him to benefit from staying at home and resting as the group travelled to Johannesburg.

The midfielder is hopeful of making a return in the round three meeting with Australia in Sydney on 8 August and it will be fascinating to see if his offloading game is as effective against Michael Cheika’s side.

Whether or not he is selected in the starting side is another issue that remains to be seen.

Simple duties

Hansen and his coaching staff have known all about Williams’ offloading ability for years at this stage, even if this latest demonstration was hugely welcome after the centre’s slightly quiet Super Rugby season.

There were hardly doubts about the other aspects of his game, but Williams offered up much more than offloads against the Pumas.

Simple Carry

Williams did the basics very well last weekend too, whether that was making his tackles, communicating, or getting over the gainline with a minimum of fuss, as above.

His work rate was particularly high, Williams apparently sensing that he had a point to prove as the World Cup grows ever closer. Little details like the fight to earn those extra yards in the example below, ensuring New Zealand have quick,clean ball to play with, will not have been missed by Hansen.

Yards Post-Tackle

Like the rest of the New Zealand squad, and pretty much the entirety of the nation’s rugby-playing population, Williams’ draw and pass skills are also in sharp condition.

It’s perhaps the area of the game where no one can match the Kiwis and Williams maintained high standards in this department.

Draw and Pass

There’s nothing glamorous about the above three examples, but again they offer encouragement to Hansen, evidence that Sonny Bill is not going to simply coast through games until his next offloading opportunity arrives.

His hard-working attitude extended into defensive duties against the Pumas too, another green tick beside his name.

Delivering on D

Williams combined well with Nonu in Christchurch, with the midfield duo regularly swapping channels as the game unfolded. There were minuscule signs of a lack of intuitive understanding in defence, but both players were strong individually.

With around 110kg of bulk on his imposing frame, Williams is obviously a powerful specimen and he puts that to good use when he gets into position for a firm hit, as in the instance below.

Smash Hit TO

A big right-shouldered tackle from Williams allows Jerome Kaino in to win a turnover penalty for the Kiwis, and this is something the centre naturally brings from his rugby league background.

Unlike other converts and code hoppers, Williams doesn’t struggle with getting a consistent wrap of the arms in the tackle and defence specialist and all-round coaching guru Wayne Smith will continue to encourage the player in that regard.

Equally as vital is the ongoing effort to make Williams more of a presence at the breakdown, with his size and power offering up the possibility of causing real havoc for the opposition.

Williams has rarely looked overly keen on hitting rucks in attack and defence since his original switch from league, but it does seem that he is making an increased effort here in recent times.

Drift and Back to Feet

Above, we see Williams make a tackle on his outside shoulder as he drifts across the pitch, then bounce back up to provide competition for the Pumas. It’s not a major defensive play but it does add split seconds to the speed of the ruck, allowing Williams’ teammates to be in slightly better shape and therefore increase their linespeed.

There were a number of other examples of this nature against Argentina, Williams evidently looking to apply himself more around the breakdown.

The impression that Williams’ fitness is improving was underlined by his work-rate off the ball last weekend – when New Zealand were in possession, when they were forced to defend and in the moments of transition too.

63.12 Work Rate BIP since 62.30

One example comes in the images above and below. With 63.12 on the match clock above, we can see Williams wide on the left of the New Zealand defence.

Below, Williams is making a successful tackle wide on the right-hand touchline with 63.22 on the clock.

63.22 Work Rate

The ball has already been in play for well over a minute by the time Williams covers that ground to make the hit and ensure Argentina don’t have an overlap, meaning it requires a determined effort.

Perhaps his actions don’t adhere ideally to the defensive system (many teams like to fold from one side of the ruck to the other only through the ‘post’ or ‘A’ defenders), but it again highlights a willingness to work hard for his teammates.

The easier option was to simply hold his position wide on the left, the likelihood being that a big gain down the Kiwis’ right would not have been blamed on his inaction. Instead, Williams turns on the work-rate and makes another good defensive contribution.

His ability to bring the glamour is already well flagged, but the New Zealand coaching team place even greater store in the basics being done well and their players putting in a ceaseless effort to ensure victory.

Sonny Bill is building nicely.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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