By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) – New Zealand centre Sonny Bill Williams says he feels “blessed” to be winning his 50th cap for the All Blacks against Australia in the third Bledisloe Cup test in Yokohama on Saturday.
The 33-year-old rugby league convert has become one of the sport’s most decorated and talented players and was a key member of the All Blacks Rugby World Cup winning sides in 2011 and 2015.
“I am just grateful and blessed to be in this environment and still rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the world,” Williams said on Thursday after being named in coach Steve Hansen’s starting XV.
Williams turned to rugby union in 2010 and made 12 appearances for his country at league as well as winning all seven of his fights during a successful boxing career.
The enigmatic Williams was also involved in several off-field incidents as a younger player but credits a conversion to Islam in 2009 with turning his life around.
“To be honest, when I first started playing rugby – and I have stated this before – I didn’t really have that connection with it because I grew up as a league player,” said Williams.
“But, over the years, that developed and being in this environment really helped that.”
“Once I had that connection I knew that anything was possible with my faith and my ability, knowing what I could achieve on the field.”
Hansen praised Williams’ attitude and determination and hoped the centre, who has suffered injuries recently, can now build momentum towards his third World Cup next year in Japan.
“He has always been a very driven athlete, still is. He has come to know himself better and he is much more aware of who he is and what he is going to do,” said Hansen.
“He understands the game a lot better.”
“He has his faith, his family and his rugby and those three things take up a lot of his time.”
“He has definitely matured into a very good rugby player and once we get some games into him we will see that.”
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)