Ali Williams joins star-studded Toulon
July 9, 2013
Ali Williams was in tears when announcing his international retirement in May © Getty Images
Former All Blacks lock Ali Williams has signed a one-year deal with European champions Toulon.
The 32-year-old Blues captain was picked up by the lucrative French giant as a replacement for Nick Kennedy, who requested a release from his contract to pursue international opportunities in his native England.
According to a statement by Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal, Williams' commitments in New Zealand will see him miss the first month of the French Top 14 season, which starts in August. A 77-Test veteran and World Cup-winning All Black, Williams will lead the Blues for the last time against the Chiefs at Eden Park on Saturday.
"It's done. He signed," Boudjellal told Lequipe. "He is expected to miss three or four weeks of the Top 14. He should land in late September or mid-October. He signed for a season at Toulon and perhaps a second."
Williams is one of seven off-season signings and joins a star-studded squad, including former All Blacks Carl Hayman and Chris Masoe, Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and Bryan Habana at Stade Mayol.
What he leaves behind is a largely inexperienced Blues side that formed a bond with their once-frivolous captain and bounced back from one of the franchise's worst seasons under his reign.
More importantly he will break one of the best coach-captain relationships with John Kirwan, who must now decide between Luke Braid and James Parsons as a suitable successor in the captain's armband. Keven Mealamu, who led the side in 2006 and then again from 2009-2012, is another option but without an extension to his NZRU contract, which expires this year, his future is uncertain.
Earlier this year Kirwan sat alongside Williams, who broke down numerous times during a press conference to announce his retirement from international rugby. Kirwan lauded Williams' passion for the Blues franchise and looked forward to building a brighter future together.
"I'm just excited about us growing together. We've still got a lot to learn in this competition, so for me it's a real positive and I think Ali is going to get better and better in his role with us," Kirwan said in May.
However, chronic knee pain and a broken thumb that Williams played through this season may have forced a re-think about how much time he had left to earn a living on the field. That along with the fact he took a serious pay cut at the Blues made the offer to join Toulon extremely hard to turn down.
Toulon won the European Cup for the first time last season, defeating Clermont in the final. They also came close to securing a Top 14 title but were upset by Castres in the final.