WAYNE BENNETT hopes he will have Sonny Bill Williams at his disposal for the All Stars game, believing the fixture would be the perfect way for the Roosters recruit to return to rugby league.
Williams is expected to honour a handshake agreement with Roosters supremo Nick Politis to arrive at Bondi Junction next year, although his boxing and rugby commitments mean his starting date is unclear. If, as expected, an official announcement is made next month, he should be eligible for selection in Bennett's All Stars team.
The master coach, who worked closely with Williams during their time together with the New Zealand national team, believes the fourth instalment of the season opener would be the ideal way for Williams to return to the sport he left in controversial circumstances five years ago.
''From my point of view, if he's eligible to play under the rules of the All Stars and he gets selected, I'd love to have him in the team,'' Bennett said. ''It would [add interest], but he's got to make his intentions clear, and the Roosters have got to let him be available. Sam Burgess came over in his first year here and finished up playing. That was a great thing for him because it helped him get accepted very quickly into the game.
''He came in here, met up with one player from every other club and they all realised what a good bloke he was, etc, etc. Sonny Bill, if he came back to the game, it would be a good way for him to come back in.''
Bennett was impressed with Williams during their time together with the Kiwis and would be happy to work with him again. ''I enjoyed it. He's a very good person. I didn't have any problems with him and I enjoyed his company,'' he said. ''He was highly respected in that group.''
While most pundits expect Williams to make his return in round one - the Bulldogs and South Sydney are lobbying the ARLC to stage their first game against the Roosters - the chance to see the former All Black play in the All Stars first would guarantee huge TV ratings and a sellout of Suncorp Stadium.
The first stage of voting for the All Stars team opened last week, with fans to decide which players should join Cameron Smith and Benji Marshall in the line-up. In the unlikely event Williams - should he be available - is overlooked, Bennett has the ability to name him as one of his two discretionary picks. In what could be taken as a pointer for the next Wests Tigers coach, the seven-time premiership winner is adamant that Marshall plays his best football with the No.6 on his back. ''He's a five-eighth, not a halfback,'' Bennett said. ''Cooper Cronk played halfback for us last year and did a great job. [Marshall] is definitely a six, I don't want him playing at halfback. He's better playing at second receiver getting that ball when he wants it. He likes to sit back and wait for that moment and then grab it. That's the way the good five-eighths play.''
Bennett's All Stars have beaten their Indigenous counterparts in their past two encounters. In the rival coaching box will be Laurie Daley, who has recently been handed the reins of the NSW side. Bennett, a former Maroons coach, believes it will be a massive task for Daley to prevent an eighth consecutive Queensland series win.
''It's a huge challenge for him personally because he hasn't club-coached,'' Bennett said. ''It's a hell of a challenge anyway, it wouldn't have mattered who they put in as coach. I thought Ricky [Stuart] did a magnificent job for NSW and it's a pity he's not carrying on with it, but that's the way it is. I wouldn't like to see them lose the momentum Ricky has gained for them and hopefully Laurie will pick that up and put good people around him. That will make it a lot easier for him.''
Asked if he thought more indigenous players will want to play for the Blues with Daley as head coach, Bennett said: ''No, that's not true. I've never seen that as an issue. That won't make any difference at all.''
Bennett, an unabashed fan of the All Stars concept, said not all of the experimental rule changes worked this year, because the players didn't have sufficient time to adjust to them. However, he believed the change to penalties in the ruck area, which allows referees to restart the tackle count, was a winner and would eventually be introduced into NRL games.
''Last year was the most entertaining and toughest game that we played. I believe the quality of the football for the first game of the season was quite remarkable,'' he said.
''That was due to that rule. I believe those extra tackles help open the game up. I hope we do the same again next year. It's the way of the future, I've got no doubt about that.
''We need to remind ourselves that we are in the entertainment business. We just got paid $1 billion because people like to watch it on TV. We've got to keep the fabric [of the game] but we need to be conscious of what entertains them - great ball movement, wonderful attacking opportunities, tremendous athletes and great defensive qualities as well.''