Focus for the media: New Rooster Sonny Bill Williams will make his return to rugby league. Photo: Brendan EspositoFirst-night nerves? You bet. He is a premiership winner, a World Cup winner and the man who might just sell out Allianz Stadium, but if you think Sonny Bill Williams isn’t nervous before his NRL return, you’d be wrong.
”I must admit, [I’m] a little bit nervous,” Williams said on Wednesday, as he prepared for his final training hit-out before the season opener. ”But definitely excited at the same time. I’ve just got to believe in my preparation like I always do and leave it all out there.”
And with that, Williams strode off. The former Bulldog and All Black, whose off-season was shortened by a boxing bout and a pectoral injury, would offer only a teaser. But it was evident even from his short statement that the expectations had filtered through to him.
His new captain, Anthony Minichiello, acknowledged that.
”The media put a lot of expectations on him,” Minichiello said. ”He’s a fantastic player. He’s come on board late with us, so he’s still working out combinations. He’ll definitely offer something to us, there’s no doubt about that, and I think he’ll get better as the season goes on.
”He’s a freak of a player. He could come out and have a blinder straight up. We’re definitely supporting him in the way he’s learning the structure, and he’s doing a lot of study on it.
But Minichiello was adamant: ”He’s ready to go.”
As a result, the match is one of the most-hyped season-openers in memory. The Thursday night clash has the potential to draw a massive television audience as well as a full house sign outside the stadium.
Minichiello has played in grand finals, State of Origins and Test matches, but being able to skipper the Roosters on such a stage, in front of such an audience and with such a talent starting – for now – off the interchange bench, the fullback said Thursday night’s match would count as a career highlight.
”It’s almost a sellout, so it’s pretty exciting for us as a team,” Minichiello said. ”This is definitely right up there, for me personally to captain such a great club, and a round-one clash against our arch-rivals is always a big match.
”To do that, with the ‘captain’ next to your name is pretty special. This has been one of the most talked about games in recent years and why wouldn’t it be? There are superstars all over the paddock, from both teams.”
Lost in the frenzy over Williams’ debut has been the ominous pre-season form of South Sydney fullback Greg Inglis, who shapes as the man most likely to cause the most damage to the Roosters’ early-season optimism. The Rabbitohs have stated this week that they have not spoken about Williams’ return, but it was clear the Roosters had been focusing some significant attention on their opponent’s superstar.
”He’s one of the best players in the game,” Minichiello said. ”He’s definitely their go-to man, but there are a lot of other players in their side that we have to stop as well. He’s supporting through the middle, and running out wide. The way he played in the trial matches, it’s going to be a tough task.
”He looks fit. Everyone knows the way he runs, he’s so athletic, but obviously he’s put a lot of work into the pre-season, so he’ll be coming out and trying to put a good performance in. Our challenge is to try and stop that. It’s a big challenge for us. Hopefully we’re up to it.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.