Blues on SBW's Christchurch mission: 'We admire what he stands for'

Author
Radio Sport, NZ Herald,
Section
Audio,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 20 March 2019, 7:17PM
Sonny Bill Williams will not play in this weekend's game. (Photo / Getty)

The Blues will attempt to win their first New Zealand derby since round one in 2016 without Sonny Bill Williams but the key midfielder has travelled to Christchurch to represent his Muslim faith with the blessing of his franchise.

Williams' sadness at the horrific events in the city last Friday was evident in a video message he posted on a social media site later that day and it was agreed by all that Christchurch is where he should be at this time.

His side play the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday but assistant coach Tom Coventry today revealed the Blues' team management were set to approach Williams about a trip south anyway.

"We were going to ask Sonny whether he would like to go so we were all in agreement," Coventry said. "It was a pretty short conversation. We all know how hard he took it – it was a pretty simple decision to make.

"Sonny has gone down to aid and support his faith and the people he represents. It also lines up with an All Black break … it's been a torrid old couple of weeks for everyone and we'll just do what we can to put in a performance on the field, and we've trained accordingly – we've been pretty good this week."

"I think it's admirable, really," Coventry said of All Black Williams' trip to Christchurch to support and raise funds following the attacks on the two mosques which have resulted in the deaths of 50 people.

"His faith is strong. He felt for the people of Christchurch and obviously he had a lot to do with the Crusaders over his long career – he spent a couple of years down there.

"We admire what he's standing for and the fact that he wants to go there and grieve and be part of the support for the region and people of New Zealand. He has our best wishes. It's a sign of Sonny having a real caring side. Rugby is important for everyone but at the end of the day it's just a game and people and our country come first."

A week and a half ago, Williams led the Blues against the Sunwolves in their first win of the season and proved a key influence for a side still mourning the death of their prop Mike Tamoaieta. This time they will captained by loose forward Blake Gibson and all will be aware that the Highlanders will present a tougher assignment.

Their last derby match win was a 33-31 thriller against the southerners at Eden Park in February three years ago. Since then they have lost 20 in a row, including their narrow defeat to the Crusaders at Eden Park in round one several weeks ago.

The Blues will be fresh from their bye, but so too will be the Highlanders after the cancellation of last Saturday's match against the Crusaders due to the events in Christchurch the day before.

"It's stating the obvious but it's been a while since the Blues knocked off a New Zealand franchise so we need to be good," Coventry said.

"I think they [Highlanders] were a bit frustrated last week against the Hurricanes and obviously they've had a bit of a tough week as well when missing out on the Crusaders. I'm sure they'll be fresh for it but maybe have a little of anxiety about losing a week."

First-five Harry Plummer retains his place, with Ma'a Nonu replacing Williams at second-five. Alex Hodgman returns from injury to start at tighthead prop, and with Ofa Tuungafasi, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu and Dalton Papalii named on the reserves bench, the Blues have an abundance of quality for the final quarter at least.

And, as New Zealand attempts to come to terms with the shocking events of last week, Coventry suggested sport could play a small part in bringing communities together.

"I'm an ex-school phys-ed teacher so my message to kids would be to get involved in sport," he said. "Sport is a multi-cultural thing in New Zealand. If you look at the Blues, we're made up of a host of nationalities and cultures and we embrace that."

Blues team to play the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday, kick-off 7.35pm:
15. Melani Nanai, 14. Tanielu Tele'a, 13. TJ Faiane, 12. Ma'a Nonu, 11. Rieko Ioane, 10. Harry Plummer, 9. Jonathan Ruru, 8. Akira Ioane, 7. Blake Gibson ©, 6. Tom Robinson, 5. Josh Goodhue, 4. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3. Sione Mafileo, 2. James Parsons, 1. Alex Hodgman.

Reserves:
16. Leni Apisai, 17. Ofa Tuungafasi, 18. Karl Tu'inukuafe, 19. Patrick Tuipulotu, 20. Dalton Papalii, 21. Augustine Pulu, 22. Otere Black, 23. Levi Aumua/Matt Duffie.

 

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