Sonny Bill expected to make big impact with return to NRL
THE Kiwis expect to see two of the most exciting league players reunited in black and white for this year's World Cup and both will have plenty to prove for different reasons.
Sonny Bill Williams makes his eagerly-anticipated return to the NRL with the Sydney Roosters on Thursday night and there's an expectation he will make a huge impact on the game he walked out on five years ago.
Benji Marshall will be keen to make a statement of a different kind following his axing as Kiwis skipper.
He is hurting after losing the captaincy but coach Stephen Kearney hopes his playmaker responds by recapturing the sort of form that won him the world's best player award in 2010.
The NZRL are confident Williams will play for the Kiwis again, even though he is being courted by Samoa to play at the World Cup.
Former Kiwis and Samoa centre Nigel Vagana is helping to assemble Samoa's squad and reportedly has Williams, Kiwis second rower Frank Pritchard and former Kiwis props Roy Asotasi and Jeff Lima on his radar.
"If the cards - or the coconuts - fall our way, we could potentially have the greatest Samoan team ever," Vagana told Sydney's Daily Telegraph this week.
New Zealand Rugby League high performance manager Tony Kemp said it was a smoke screen and Kiwis fans had nothing to worry about.
"It's World Cup year," Kemp said.
"The Cook Islands, Tonga and Samoa want the strongest team possible.
"If you look through our team, we have a raft of Polynesian players so their heritage is being challenged but, as far as we are concerned, these guys want to play for New Zealand. They are current New Zealanders. They are on the radar.
"We promote our New Zealand players who don't make the Kiwis to play for those countries - we think it's great if they go to the World Cup - but I can guarantee if Sonny Bill wants to play in the World Cup then we want him."
Kearney has spoken to Williams about his availability but the former All Black and part-time boxer wants to see how he goes on the pitch before committing to anything.
"Sonny Bill hasn't played a game in five years so let's watch this space," Kemp said.
"We have been respectful that he just wants to get out there and play. I have no doubt he's going to be a hit but let's just bide our time."
It's difficult to see Williams play for any other side than the Kiwis because he wants to add the rugby league World Cup to the rugby World Cup he won with the All Blacks in 2011 and the WBA International Heavyweight belt he currently owns and his best chance is with New Zealand.
He has a stated ambition of being regarded as one of the greatest sportsmen on the planet and success is a pre-requisite for that.
Marshall was instrumental in the Kiwis' World Cup triumph in 2008 but has been erratic over the past couple of seasons and Kearney hopes stripping the captaincy from him and handing it to Simon Mannering will free him up to play to a level he's capable.
"He understands it's a decision I have made with the team's best interests at heart," Kearney said.
"In terms of his disappointment, he's not going to hide that but he's a big lad. He's overcome hurdles before. His focus now is on performing and doing well so we can retain the World Cup."