‘Help the Pacific Island teams’

Picture: NZ HERALD

WARWICKSHIRE, 13 SEPTEMBER 2018 (STUFF NZ) – Modest, selfless, forthright. Rather than bask in his latest achievement, Sir Bryan Williams used his hall of fame induction to champion a cause close to his heart.

Moments after being included in World Rugby’s Half of Fame on Thursday morning, Williams called on those same powerbrokers to pave a proper future for the Pacific Islands.

Like many in the rugby fraternity, the All Blacks and Samoan great remains frustrated more is not being done to create sustainable pathways for the Island nations.

“I can’t see why Pacific Island teams aren’t included in mainstream competitions. It’s an absolute blight on the game that it’s happened and continues to happen,” Williams told the Herald. “As we all see the Pacific Island players are the most exciting on the planet. World Rugby, Sanzaar and others, please do something about it.”

Williams, of course, became the first Polynesian to represent the All Blacks in the 1970s. He went on to play 38 tests, 75 games, scoring 66 tries. Fourteen of those came during the 1970 tour of South Africa when, through his dynamic feats on the wing, he challenged apartheid views.

After retirement, Williams coached Samoa to their triumph over Wales at the 1999 World Cup.

Since then, though, Pacific rugby has struggled to progress further. Instead their rich talent pool continues to populate professional clubs around the world.

According to the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare group, 21.4 per cent of all athletes at the 2015 World Cup were of Island descent.

“It means a lot to me. Those days [coaching Samoa] were very special, particularly because it enabled me to learn a lot more about my culture that I didn’t know. I still can’t speak the Samoan language or the Rarotongan, where my mother is from, but I can feel it in my heart and my blood.”

Williams became the 23rd New Zealand inductee when he joined Australia’s Stephen Larkham, Ireland’s Ronan O’Gara, French fullback Pierre Villepreux and Welsh lock Liza Burgess as new inclusions at a ceremony in Rugby, Warwickshire.

It was another proud moment for the 67-year-old, on the back of his knighthood earlier this year for services to rugby. One made more special by the presence of his wife,

Leslie, and son Paul, who played 19 tests for Samoa and now lives in Biarritz, France.

“You never covet these sorts of awards. It’s like the cream on the cake, really. I’m pretty chuffed,” Williams said. “I have always loved my time in rugby and fortunately rugby has loved me back. I’ve had a big year. This award, and the knighthood, are very special. I really don’t know why or how they’ve happened but you try and be the best you can be.”

Reflecting on his career, Williams recalled his first match on Eden Park in 1961; a curtain-raiser to the All Blacks. Sitting on the field afterwards with a cold pie and warm drink, he watched Sir Colin Meads, Wilson Whineray and Kel Tremain trot out.

Nine years later he achieved his dream, playing alongside Meads for the All Blacks.

“Those players were my heroes.”

During his early years Williams feared he would never taste success. From the age of five, when he first played rugby league, until 21, he was never part of a championship-winning team.

And when the All Blacks lost his first tour in 1970, Williams blamed himself.

“It used to bug me big time. Seriously, I thought I was jinxed.”

From the Ranfurly Shield to global accolades, success eventually flowed.

“Learning how to win was perhaps the biggest lesson. It all comes back to team culture and setting protocols that everyone agrees to and follows. When you get that right you’re going to have a special team.”

These days Williams extracts most pleasure from his beloved Ponsonby club – even more this season after they claimed the Auckland title.

“I love the interaction that goes on every Saturday at my club; the old and the young, the fat and the thin, the red and the black. We all get along and we get into that clubhouse and we celebrate.

“I guess I’ve been to the top of the mountain but I’ve never got more joy from just going into the club. Doing that every Saturday, I love it.

“When Ponsonby win the Gallagher shield I always celebrate big time with the team. We didn’t actually get the karaoke machine organised but during the course of the evening the boys found my old favourite ‘New York, New York’ and I was singing it at the top of my voice as I’ve done for many years.”

One can imagine Williams breaking out in song if the Pacific Islanders are ever truly embraced too.

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