Rugby League superstars to lead New Zealand and England into World Cup battle.
Code-swapping star Sonny Bill Williams goes head-to-head with Sam Burgess when defending champions New Zealand clash with England in a Rugby League World Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday.
Williams and Burgess are two of rugby league’s biggest names, and Sydney club rivals with the Rabbitohs and Roosters respectively.
The duo enjoyed some memorable clashes in the 2013 NRL season, each steamrolling the other at one point.
“There are players who we like to call world-class but, for me, there is a category above that — what I like to call the generational players,” said former England captain and BBC pundit Jamie Peacock.
“On Saturday, I think there will be one in each forward pack — England’s Sam Burgess and Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams.”
The New Zealand second-rower will be hoping his team can repeat their 33-22 semi-final victory over England at the last World Cup in 2008 to continue his own bid to become the first player to win global titles in both codes.
Playing at centre, Williams was a member of the All Blacks’ squad that won the rugby union World Cup on home soil in 2011.
“There’s no two ways about it, he’s a world-class athlete,” England prop Ben Westwood said of Williams, whose trademark offloading game has been overshadowed by the power of his team’s front row and skills of scooting dummy-half Issac Luke.
“The things he does a lot of people can’t do.”
Burgess said it would be odd going up against South Sydney team-mates Luke and Bryson Goodwin.
“There’s going to be a lot of mixed emotions there but I’m really looking forward to the challenge. The English boys are certainly looking forward to it as well and progressing to the next stage hopefully,” Burgess said.
“But it’s going to be one physical game. They’ve got some big boys in there, they’ve got (Sam) Kasiano, Sonny Bill (Williams), (Frank) Pritchard, (Jared Waerea-) Hargreaves… the list goes on. So it’s a great challenge for us at Wembley.”
Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney has reshuffled his team, Kevin Locke preferred at fullback to Josh Hoffman, and Jason Nightingale coming in on the wing in place of the injured Manu Vatuvei (groin).
Kearney was confident this pack would deal with the monster set of English forwards, with Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich, Ben Matulino and Kasiano in his 17.
“I thought Jared, Jesse and Ben had great games last week against Scotland,” said Kearney, whose side have notched up wins over Samoa (42-24), France (48-0), Papua New Guinea (56-10) and Scotland (40-4).
England advanced into the semi-finals with a 34-6 victory over France, although it was not the most convincing of wins.
New Zealand-born Rangi Chase paid the price for a disjointed half-back showing, coach Steve McNamara axing the stand-off in favour of Gareth Widdop.
“I think we play a whole lot better when there is an element of fear in the back of our minds,” said McNamara.
“Playing really good opposition brings the best out in you. These boys are definitely up for it, I guarantee it.”
There are only four England survivors from the 2008 semi-final — Rob Burrow, Ben Westwood, James Graham and James Roby — with England having not reached a World Cup final since 1995.
“We haven’t been too far off in our last four games, but we haven’t strung together a full 80-minute performance and that is definitely what we need to do on Saturday,” England hooker Roby said.
“The Kiwis are possibly the form team of the tournament but I think we are at least equal to them. On our day we can turn anyone over.”