By Brendan O’Brien
French coach Philippe Saint-Andre found an ally in an unlikely place yesterday ahead of his team’s World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand next weekend.
Sonny Bill Williams will be doing his best on Saturday night to bring the curtain down on Saint-Andre’s tenure as French boss – he finishes at the end of the tournament – but the All Black centre on Monday revealed his debt to the man who was his coach for a critical spell at Toulon.
“He was an awesome coach,” said Williams who made the switch from rugby league to union in France in 2008.
“He really brought out the best in me and gave me the confidence to kick-start my ambitions to go back to New Zealand and have a crack at the All Black jersey."
He knew little of the union code when he left league. Indeed, Williams admitted yesterday that he hadn’t even watched New Zealand’s infamous loss to France at the 2007 World Cup, though he noticed they were “pretty sad times” when he flew home from Australia the week after.
Saint-Andre helped him by keeping things simple. Make sure you are where you should be for set plays, he said, then just do your thing and trust your instincts.
It worked and Williams has been an electrifying presence on the pitch since.
Jonny Wilkinson and Tana Umaga were among the others who contributed to his union education at Toulon, though he isn’t too sure exactly why or how he ended up featuring as a centre in the 15-man code after switching from the Bulldogs in Sydney.
“I'm not too sure. I guess it kind of just happened. When I started I always wanted to play in the forwards, but through injuries at Toulon I ended up playing in the backs and it went on from there. I was fortunate to play alongside those guys and be coached by Philippe."
Williams has been superb, perhaps unplayable at times, off the bench for the All Blacks so far at the World Cup. A member of the squad that claimed the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago, he claimed it would be even harder to win out this time.
"It's definitely different,” he said of the 2015 tournament, “but it is finals footy (now). Exciting times. A lot of us weren't there back in 2011, but having had the experience myself the intensity of this tournament has taken another step.
“We know what we are up for this weekend. This is what we have been building for as a team. We are a big squad. Every player has been doing their bit."