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The second half of the final of the eighth Rugby World Cup, contested by New Zealand and Australia in front of a capacity 80,000 crowd at Twickenham, had just got under way when All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams, on as a replacement, conjured up a moment of sublime skill.
Held up in the tackle by three opposing team players, Williams had the presence of mind to lob an audacious offload from above his head and right into the hands of team-mate Ma’a Nonu, who promptly sliced his way through the Australian defence to send the defending world champions into a 21-3 lead.
The mighty All Blacks went on to win 34-17, retaining their title in style. As he and his jubilant team-mates paraded with the Webb Ellis Cup on the Twickenham turf, Williams made his second memorable contribution of the day.
It came when a young boy ran on to the pitch only to be tackled to the ground by a steward. Taking control of the situation, Williams took the youngster in his arms and then hung his winner’s medal round his neck, an unforgettable gesture that was broadcast right around the world.
The following day, SBW, as he is also known in his homeland, was rewarded for his generosity when he was presented with a new winner’s medal at the World Rugby Awards.
A hugely skilful union player renowned for his offloads, and a two-time world champion – having played a part in the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup win on home soil in 2011 – Williams has also proved his ability in rugby league, a sport in which he was named International Player of the Year in 2013.
He has also put his imposing frame to use in the boxing ring, winning all six of the heavyweight bouts he has contested and winning the New Zealand title in the weight category in 2012. On top of all his previous achievements, he is now gunning for glory in the Olympic rugby sevens competition at Rio 2016.
Siblings eye the podium
“The best sportsmen ever have been Olympians. Usain Bolt, Muhammad Ali, the list goes on. It’s just an amazing opportunity to become one of those,” said Williams, who was welcomed with open arms by his new team-mates when he joined the New Zealand sevens set-up at the start of 2016.
“He’s amazing. He’s infectious,” said All Blacks’ sevens coach Gordon Tietjens. “The players idolise him. They follow him, and with everything he does, he’s a real professional.”
SBW has been an imposing figure on the Sevens World Series scene since then, taking great strides in a variant that is new to him, while staying as grounded as he has always been.
“The pleasing thing is to be in an environment where, even though I'm a rookie, everyone wants to help you out,” he said.
Showcasing his considerable technique and power in tournament after tournament, he has already produced more than a few glimpses of the skills that have made a world star in the 15- and 13-a-side games.
Speaking in mid-April after New Zealand’s defeat to Fiji in the final of the Hong Kong Sevens, Williams said: “For myself, it’s just been about fitting in with the team. The team comes first. There’s a lot of talk that goes on outside of this group here and I don’t worry about it. I just worry if whether I have my team-mates’ respect and if my coaches think that I'm on the right track.”
He added: “I believe that if I just keep working hard, God willing, stay healthy and injury-free, I'll be able to get there in the end. I’m loving it. I'm loving the challenge, really enjoying it and happy with how I've been playing and where I am at this stage.”
SBW identified reigning Sevens World Series champions and current championship leaders Fiji as the favourites for Olympic gold in Rio. “They play different to any other team in the circuit,” he explained. “It’s their national sport so we’re coming up against it pretty much. It's challenging but very exciting at the same time, coming up against some of the best players in the world sevens.”
There could well be two members of the Williams family on the rugby pitch at Rio, with Sonny Bill’s sister Niall Williams gunning for a place in the New Zealand women’s sevens squad. The country’s rugby-mad fans would like nothing better than to see the brother-and-sister act take to top of the podium in Brazil and claim Olympic gold for the All Blacks.