Capturing Quadzilla - the inside story behind Trae Williams' rugby defection

Mens - London
by Iain Payten

The journey to capturing a Quadzilla began when a video pinged around the Aussie sevens coaching staff in early April.

It was the men’s 100m race at the Australian national titles, and knowing the Aussie sevens team were on the hunt for raw speed, the sender pointed out that the winner – 17-year-old phenom Edward Nketia – played in the first XV at St Edmunds College in Canberra last year.

The problem, as Aussie sevens assistant coach Steve Hoiles soon found out, is Nketia is proudly Kiwi-born and had recently moved back to New Zealand. And he'd quite like to be an All Black one day.

But Hoiles kept searching. And in the top four fastest Aussies he found another two ex-rugby players: Rohan Browning and Trae Williams.

“We knew what we were missing – outright speed – so I started looking into these guys,” Hoiles told

“Trae Williams’ name came up, I remember hearing about him at the Commonwealth Games and he'd talked about playing footy as a kid.

“But looking at that race, and most of his races, the reason Trae stood out is he flew out of the blocks. He’s not just fast, he’s powerful.”

Some schoolboy rugby highlights online showed Williams slipping tackles and finding his way to the line with a Gilbert, and so Hoiles fired off a message via Instagram: hey mate, keen to talk about playing footy?

Williams was intrigued and a few days later Hoiles flew to Brisbane for a chat, and coach Tim Walsh did likewise the next week.

“We flew him down the following week,” Hoiles said.

“’Horney’ (Rob Horne) picked him up at the airport and we took him for a session to check out his skills.

“You can tell he has played, and when you’re talking a transition like this, having that history and knowledge helps. His tackling was good, his contact was really good.

“He still has a lot of things he’ll need to improve on but fundamentally he has played the game and knows what is what.”

An offer was made and, after some thinking time, accepted. Williams – a 10.1 second 100m speedster – was on board with the Aussie sevens program.

Much to the agitation of an irate men’s sprint relay coach, Hoiles had also made contact with Browning.

Browning is a keen rugby fan who went to Trinity Grammar in Sydney and played the XV-man code prior to focussing on sprinting.

But the 21-year-old Sydney Uni athlete, who last month clocked a 10.08 to become the third fastest ever Australian sprinter, elected to stick with sprinting until the 2020 Olympics.

Hoiles admits signing Williams “is a gamble” but it’s not just the 22-year-old's background that gives the Aussie coaches confidence it’s worth a shot.

It’s the fact several athletes have already been taken off a track and turned into elite sevens players.

Ellia Green was a track sprinter before switching to rugby, and US speedster Carlin Isles and Perry Baker both have track backgrounds, too.

All three are now stars on the World Series.

Ellia Green didn't miss a beat in her return to the World Series. Photo: Walmsley“And Walshy made the point having seen Ellia Green coming across and Carlin and Perry start, Trae is ahead of where those guys were already,” Hoiles said.

“He will still have to put work in obviously, and that’s the unknown on this I guess; it is a gamble but it’s worth taking because we know what the upsides can be.

“You can’t coach that type of speed into someone, particularly off the mark.

“If you look at a lot of the tries that Carlin and Perry score, they score those tries in the first 20 metres, not the last 40-60 metres; by then they’re jogging them in.

“They’ve left people for dead.

“It’s the knock-on effect, too. If you can have those guys scoring you long range tries on day one, the rest of your guys are back at the halfway line, saving energy.

“All that stuff accumulates by day two. We are a side that works too hard for our tries and it all adds up.”

Green told she’s known about the 'Quadzilla' for years and was very excited to hear he’d signed on with the Aussie sevens team.

"I always keep an eye on the track results and Trae’s name popped up quite a few years ago now,” Green said.

“He’s a big deal, he’s super quick and he has massive legs.  

“Can he make the switch? Because he is naturally so athletic and powerful, he already has a lot of assets. You can’t really teach what he has already, he’s a gifted athlete.

Carlin Isles has a hat-trick by half-time. Photo: Mike Lee“So I don’t think it will be hard for him to pick up the game.

“When I made the switch from track to rugby, it was run first and then learn the game. They used to tell me: “just get the ball and run Ellia”.

“I don’t know what Walshy will tell Trae, there’ll be a bit more to it but probably not much. And not many would catch him if he has some space.”

Used to explosive, one-off efforts in sprint training, Williams will have to re-condition his body to deal with repeat efforts and long stretches of play.

But Hoiles said they won’t be trying to change the 'Quadzilla’s' unique physique.

“We are not going to try and change his body if it means it will slow him up,” Hoiles said.

“He might need to put on a couple of kilograms in the upper body but nothing major.

“He’s only young and three or four years ago he was playing league and union and training a couple of nights a week for both, and athletics, and playing two games of footy on a weekend. So workload is not foreign to him.”

Williams will fly to England on Friday, to spend the London Sevens weekend in camp with his new squad mates.

He’ll get to watch them play and also watch Isles up close, with the USA in Australia’s pool.

Hoiles is happy Williams has been studying Isles’ YouTube highlights, because there is much to learn from the pocket-rocket speedster. And not just on how to score tries.

“What Carlin does really well now, compared to a couple of years ago, is pick and choose when he has a crack,” Hoiles said.

“If it’s not on, he’s good enough to get himself out of the situation and pass the ball back 20 metres and wait for when it’s on again. He’s a good player, not just a runner.”

As US Olympic triallist and indoor US sprint rep, Isles is a damn good runner and he is never shy to let people know.

When news of Williams’ signing emerged on Wednesday, instantly people looked up Isles' PB (10.13) and wondered if rugby had a new fastest man.

And Isles wasn't having it.

After a tweet that suggested the two speedsters now have a race, Isles replied: “I’m not losing no race period! Fastest forever!”.

Green is a good friend of Isles and she is in no way keen to dive into the middle of that question: who would win – Quadzilla or Carlin?

"Aaah, geez, that’s a tough one," Green laughed.

"Trae maybe gets the jump but Carlin comes back at him  … oh that’s really tough. Nope, I am not putting money on that one.

"I guess we will just have to wait and see hey?"