WELLINGTON, October 17 – High-profile rugby league defector Sonny Bill Williams was fast-tracked into the All Blacks by coach Graham Henry on Sunday after playing only a handful of rugby union games in New Zealand.
Williams, who turned down a record five million US dollar offer to stay with French club Toulon earlier this year was the one new face in the 30-man All Blacks squad named for the upcoming northern hemisphere tour.
The squad features a number of players who were overlooked for the domestic Test season this year including flanker Daniel Braid, wing Hosea Gear, fly-half Stephen Donald, scrum-half Andy Ellis and utility back Isaia Toeava.
Henry’s hand was also forced by injuries in several positions including regular scrum-half Piri Weepu who broke a leg in a provincial match on the eve of the team announcement.
Henry has named three scrum-halves — with Ellis and Alby Mathewson to back up Jimmy Cowan — and three hookers with Hika Elliot who played one match against Munster two years ago joining incumbent Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore.
Donald, who missed the domestic season, won the nod to back up Dan Carter in the number 10 jersey with the two understudies earlier this year, Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade, both missing out.
Williams breakthrough into the All Blacks ranks comes two years after he notoriously walked out midway through a lucrative contract with Sydney rugby league side Canterbury Bulldogs to play rugby union for Toulon.
The 25-year-old midfielder left the French club this year declaring he wanted to realise "a childhood dream" to make the All Blacks and signed on to play in New Zealand for 500,000 dollars until after next year’s World Cup.
"It’s a lot less money than what Europe offers but I just feel for my immediate playing future, this is the best decision," Williams said at the time.
Although he has played fewer than 10 games in New Zealand’s provincial competition the powerful Williams has impressed with his off-loads and running game although there are question marks over his defensive capabilities.
He also faces competition for a start in the All Blacks with the established pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith also named in the touring party.
All Blacks squad:
Forwards: John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Daniel Braid, Tom Donnelly, Hikawera Elliot, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Keven Mealamu, Liam Messam, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, Samuel Whitelock, Tony Woodcock.
Backs: Andy Ellis, Daniel Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Stephen Donald, Hosea Gear, Cory Jane, Alby Mathewson, Mils Muliaina, Ma’a Nonu, Josevata Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Conrad Smith, Isaia Toeava, Sonny Bill Williams.
October 30 – All Blacks v Australia, Hong Kong
November 06 – All Blacks v England, London
November 13 – All Blacks v Scotland, Edinburgh
November 20 – All Blacks v Ireland, Dublin
November 27 – All Blacks v Wales, Cardiff