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SBW stars as All Blacks carve up Soldier Field Posted almost 2 years ago

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Photo: Agence France-Presse

Chicago’s Soldier Field has played host to a wide variety of events in its 90-year history ranging from American football to opera and boxing to ski-jumping.

Many have also commanded the attention of capacity crowds at the stadium such as boxers Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, former President Franklin Roosevelt and even evangelist Billy Graham. But perhaps none more so than former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton.

The NFL legend lit up Soldier Field for 13 years and while his achievements – including a key role in the Bears’ run to the Super Bowl XX title in 1985 – for some reason do not warrant a statue like fellow Chicago favourite and NBA superstar Michael Jordan, there can be no doubting his status.

The former all-time leading rusher, who died of cancer in 1999, produced arguably his best ever performance in 1977 when he carried for what was then a record 275 yards against the Vikings at Soldier Field.

On another November day, 37 years later, the All Blacks paid a kind of tribute by carving up the same turf just like ‘Sweetness’ himself.

A dominant forward pack laid the foundation for a bold approach from the world champions and gave their talent-heavy back division license to thrill – and they did just that.

Sonny Bill Williams, perhaps a modern day match for the larger-than-life personality that was Payton, took centre stage in his first game back in black since 2012 following his latest code switch.

He racked up an impressive 132m with ball in hand without the benefit of any blockers and claimed two tries in the process. He was denied another by a marginal forward pass but it did little to diminish the near-constant smile that filled his face.

That Williams hit his stride so effortlessly as if he had never been away from the Test stage is perhaps not too surprising given the calibre of the opposition but the ease with which he resumed his international career is also largely down to his undoubted talents.

Sharp, hungry and elusive, his power and physical prowess in defence was just as impressive with not a hint that he has just come off a gruelling NRL campaign with the Sydney Roosters.

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Perhaps the most pleasing thing for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was that Williams appeared so comfortable. Clearly confident in his own ability and at home within the All Blacks set-up he is able to concentrate on performing.

This wasn’t the spectacular Williams that made his name during the first part of his international career between 2010-12 with one crazy hand-off after another – but it was no less devastating as he toyed with the Eagles’ defence.

Whisper it, Williams 2.0 may be a little more mature and as a result an even better player. His game will no doubt still be sprinkled with stardust but he no longer feels the pressure to justify his selection with the spectacular with the result being a more composed and deadly player.

That is great news for Hansen with Williams clearly adding to an already formidable armoury – and bad news for anyone hoping to wrestle the World Cup out of the All Blacks’ grasp.

And it is not as if the All Blacks are short of players capable of producing something special with Kieran Read’s latest outrageous off-load to set up a try for winger Julian Savea in Saturday’s victory just the latest in long line of such examples.

Fullback Israel Dagg’s contribution was no less emphatic with his industry and ingenuity carrying him to a total of 120m. He gleefully joined the line time and time again to exploit the holes created by his forwards and stretch an over-worked Eagles defence to breaking point and beyond.

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In the ultra-competitive battle to cement a place in the All Blacks’ back three, an in-form Dagg is right up there with winger Julian Savea whose incredible record of 29 tries in 30 Tests must see him rival captain Richie McCaw for the first name on Hansen’s team sheet.

An injury to winger Cory Jane will make the next selection meeting a little easier but that is not to discount the ability of Charles Piutau – another fleet-footed winger who also helped himself to over 100m of Soldier Field.

Such are the riches available to Hansen that he may well choose to rest both Dagg and Williams from next weekend’s clash with England – with the injury cloud over the latter maybe forcing his hand.

How the rest of the world must continue to eye the All Blacks’ strength in depth with envy.

USA coach Mike Tolkin certainly does. He can only dream of such luxuries.

Instead he has to rely on a handful of professional players and others who rely on another characteristic that served Payton well – heart.

Has SBW done enough to earn a start against England next weekend? How will England look to nullify the speed, power, and skill of the All Blacks?

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist and former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com. He has been reporting on sport for over 20 years for various media outlets including the BBC and ESPN with the majority dedicated to the game they play in heaven. A veteran of four World Cups, England's 2003 triumph remains the most memorable moment of his professional career closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal

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