By Liam Napier in Lyon
Tamaiti Williams has soaked in the French scenery and engaged in scuffles with All Blacks teammates at training. This week, though, the World Cup truly comes to life for the Crusaders prop as he contemplates a pinnacle stage debut.
Ethan de Groot’s two-match suspension opens the door for Williams to become one of the last All Black squad members to debut at this tournament.
To this point, Williams has been patient after missing out on the All Blacks’ opening defeat to France and the rout of Namibia.
The All Blacks’ injured quartet - captain Sam Cane, Jordie Barrett, Tyrel Lomax and Shannon Frizell, all of whom are in line to return this weekend - and injury replacement Ethan Blackadder are the other squad members yet to feature in France.
Captain Sam Cane, Jordie Barrett, Tyrel Lomax and Shannon Frizell are all in line to return this weekend for the All Blacks against Italy. Photo / Getty Images
As the All Blacks sudden death pool match against Italy looms in Lyon this weekend, Williams appears poised to debut from the bench behind experienced loosehead Ofa Tuʻungafasi.
“I’ve walked the streets of Lyon, Bordeaux and Toulouse. It’s my first time in France,” Williams said three days out from confronting Italy. “It’s been fun eating some of the food and exploring. It’s time to go to work now. We’re here for a reason.
“It’s a dream to play for the All Blacks but to play at a World Cup is another dream so I’m looking forward to it.”
In the years to come Williams possesses the potential to make a notable impression on the test scene. His imposing 140kg frame belies his deft ball skills and sharp footwork at the line. And his elevation to the All Blacks this year reflects Williams vastly improving his nutritional intake and fitness capacity - after impressing by playing both sides of the scrum and big minutes for the Crusaders this year.
As it stands, though, the 23-year-old is in the infancy of his development and, therefore, still learning his craft in the elite arena.
After three tests - two off the bench against the Springboks and one starting tussle with the Wallabies in Dunedin - Williams admits everything that comes with stepping up from Super Rugby to the test scene, from the recovery protocols to the size and contrasting techniques of his propping opponents, requires significant adjustment.
“It’s massive. The atmosphere is crazy. The trainings are a lot harder. The body is sorer. The speed of the game, the calibre of people you’re playing every week is different for me because I’ve only played against New Zealand and Australian teams. Playing people I haven’t played before is a new challenge for me.
“I’m learning a lot with the different styles of rugby. It’s very hard - brute force I’d say. It’s a good challenge and I really embraced playing the Springboks.
“I grew up watching a bit of Italy when I was a kid. The older boys tell me they’re passionate, tough, especially around the set piece - they pride themselves on that area.”
All Blacks prop Tamaiti Williams training near Lyon. Photosport
In a nod to his combative on-field approach, Crusaders team-mate Codie Taylor revealed Williams didn’t shy away last week in Bordeaux when tensions flared on the training field as the All Blacks ripped into each other during their bye week.
“It’s always the same faces but it’s usually a good sign. There’s good niggle and over-the-top niggle and we’ve probably had a bit of both at times,” Taylor said. “Old mate next to me got stuck into a bit of it himself so that’s a good sign - you’ve got a young first-year All Black who’s willing to put his hand up and get stuck in. He’s not afraid of it.”
After keeping Williams on ice at the World Cup, All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan is keen to unleash him on the Italians.
“He’s been training incredibly well. He’s ready,” Ryan said. “He’s been putting the work in off the grass as well as on it. He’s been learning a lot from the experienced props. With Ethan being out it’s no secret he’s going to get a crack. It’s just what the mix will be. I’m looking forward to him putting in place what he’s been working hard at.”
Ryan is demanding the All Blacks forward pack sets the tone against Italy. While collective improvements were evident in the supremely dominant scrum against Namibia, a return to tier-one opposition will provide a much better gauge of the All Blacks’ readiness for a potential quarterfinal.
“We’ve got to step up. It’s important for us an All Blacks team to change gears and for us as a forward pack we’re in a great spot to do that. We’ll have no excuses around that. It has to be a bit of a marker game for us as a pack. The Bordeaux camp there were some good physical exchanges. I blew the whistle a couple more times than usual. It’s a good sign.”
All Blacks v Italy: Kickoff 8am, Saturday
Follow the match at nzherald.co.nz
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