As Sonny Bill Williams celebrated his try by jumping into the crowd in his last Super Rugby game during the Chiefs’ demolition of the Sharks in the final, it got me thinking: What legacy has he left behind, especially in the mind of the South African schoolboy rugby player?
The New Zealand inside centre said his good-byes to his country and the competition last month, much to fans’ dismay and rage, for the financially luscious pastures of Japan before returning to Rugby League – NRL – in Australia next year.
But what is the offload king leaving behind?
It was perhaps fitting that on the same day I watched the Chiefs gut the Sharks, I went to Pietermaritzburg to watch the old KZN school rugby derby between Maritzburg College and Glenwood High School – which ended in a thrilling 27-all draw.
I got some perspective.
On Saturday morning I watched Sonny Bill Williams create havoc in the middle of a Sharks defence that was valiant at first but started disintegrating pretty quickly. SBW, as he has been nicknamed, broke two tackles in the move that created the Chiefs first try – scored by Tim Nanai-Williams – before offloading, of course, to Robbie Robinson.
The Sharks, it became obvious, had thrown all their punches during the Stormers game and were smashed to all parts of Waikato Stadium. SBW, Aaron Cruden and Sona Taumalolo (also playing his last game for the Chiefs) the chief culprits.
SBW wrapped up his enthralling contribution to the match, Chiefs and indeed SANZAR rugby, by diving through untouched and throwing himself to the fans, who hugged him and thanked him for his contribution.
But that contribution came under heavy scrutiny last year when one man called Peter de Villiers was Springbok coach. De Villiers was quoted as saying, about SBW’s show-offy and outrageous ball releases during tackles:
“He’s doing everything wrong what rugby principles require of you in the game.”
“Backhand passes shouldn’t be the norm… it has become the norm, now everyone wants to do that kind of nonsense.”
“This kind of non-rugby stuff he’s doing, if it comes off it’s brilliant, but do you have control over these kind of things? If you get to the international level where people work you out, then you have to be in control of what you’re doing.”
Div said a youngster watching SBW in Super Rugby would get the wrong impression of the core skills needed. That’s Div for you, never one to nurse people’s feelings.
“I’ve got a simple reply for him [Div]. I am flattered that he would go to the lengths he did in dissecting my game. If I can change the face of rugby with the way I play, then so be it,” SBW apparently replied.
But was Div right? Or did he just want to ruin the fun for everyone?
To get the answer, you have to go to a school rugby game. As so I did.
I was lucky to catch the Maritzburg College 3rds vs. Glenwood High School 3rds and then the 2nd teams faced each other before the grand finale.
If one could have picked up anything from the fixtures, it was that the boys love throwing the ball around. Which of course they must. They are young, restless, fearless and careless. There were about as many knock-ons and turnovers from spilt ball as a result of failed offloads as there were spectators at the school. The referee’s whistle can get nauseating sometimes, so I was all too happy when the 1st XV’s ran onto Goldstone field.
The first teams promised more structured play.
I decided to be daring and count how many attempts at releasing the ball while caught in a tackle the lads made and how many they actually pulled off.
As if the Glenwood boys heard the voices in my head, they scored a 2nd minute opening try that was sparked by two brilliantly executed offloads and caught the home side sleeping.
Glenwood boasted generally bigger players – and I pray that they are all within the school rugby age limit – and therefore bossed the contact situations. Their players were taller, leaner and thus tried offloading more often than the College boys did.
The way I remember College, from my high school days, was that they never had the biggest nor the most talented rugby players but they played with a lot of heart and played until the final whistle.
College came back from 22-6 down midway through the second period to lead 27-22 before a late unconverted Glenwood try made sure that the boys shared the spoils.
My offload tally told an interesting story at the end. College attempted 12 offloads the entire game, ten of which went safely into hand while two went astray – one even created a gap from which a try was scored. Glenwood attempted 18 offloads and managed to safely secure half of them, the other half went the way of handling errors.
It seems that the most telling thing is that the “Sonny Bills” help the kids create gaps in midfield and if they succeed more than half the time then where’s the harm in trying one?
I saw more pick and go’s, something that Div considers “rugby stuff” than I did offloads. So let the kids be kids, I say. And if in the process we produce an attacking genius like Sonny Bill Williams, we would have done exceedingly well. But don’t dismiss Div as a grumpy old man, he’s got the interests of the SA rugby future at heart.
One final thought, when SBW first started playing Rugby Union, who decided to put him at inside centre? Was it Tana Umaga? That man is a genius.
Farewell SBW – current World Cup and Super Rugby title holder.
Catch my thoughts on rugby and other sports matters on twitter @Sbu_Fundraiser