On a Saturday morning in late July 2008 as I woke up on a couch in Salthill, recovering from a night out after seeing the Dandy Warhols perform at the Galway Arts Festival, my mobile beeped. It was a message from a distraught friend in Sydney who informed me that the NRL’s best player, Sonny Bill Williams, was en route to Europe having walked out on a five-year contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs. Williams was chased half-way across the globe by the notoriously rabid and insular Sydney rugby league press, and played a game of cat and mouse to avoid having an injunction slapped on him by a French magistrate, before arriving at the door of the owner of Toulon rugby union, Mourad Boujellal.
This was the first instance of Williams – then regarded as the finest player in the league code and who won a Premiership as a nineteen-year-old with the Bulldogs in 2004 – appearing on the radar of the Northern Hemisphere’s sports press. Many were justified in querying the fuss given that Mark Gasnier, a more recent defection from the NRL to French rugby, made an impact that was good but nothing out of the ordinary. But there was something about Sonny Bill.
Williams spent a lot of the first season at Toulon injured and after a promising second season chose to ignore Boujellal’s riches in order to move to New Zealand and sign with the Crusaders and make a play for an All Black jersey – the most coveted in either code. Graham Henry didn’t stand on ceremony and rushed Williams into the All Black squad for the 2010 winter tour of Europe. Williams made his debut against England at Twickenham and alerted rugby audiences far and wide as to his remarkable abilities and potential with dazzling off-loading at second-five-eighth. He may have felt that he had arrived when Bulldog’s skipper Andrew Ryan lifted the NRL premiership trophy in 2004 but this was on a different level altogether.
Sonny Bill announced himself to a massive world-wide audience that would never have heard of him had he remained in Sydney plying his trade weekly at grounds in Wollongong, Cronulla, or Leichardt. My Uncle who lives in Connemara knows who Sonny Bill Williams and fellow All Black and former league player Brad Thorn are, but he has never heard of and probably will never hear of the magnificent Greg Inglis – the finest league player alive.
League has a vibrant and thriving scene in New South Wales and Queensland along with a very impressive domestic competition in the NRL, but that’s as far as it goes. The equivalent competition in the North of England is much weaker and doesn’t register outside of its heartland. It’s not stretching it to say that rugby league probably makes less of a global sporting impact than the amateur Gaelic games of football and hurling given the intrepid nature of the Irish diaspora in implanting a piece of home and establishing teams wherever they settle. Most league fans I know wind up playing rugby union when they go on their overseas experience.
Sonny Bill’s late charge for All Black recognition wasn’t enough to dislodge incumbent second-five-eighth Ma’a Nonu and he had a limited but effective involvement in 2011’s victorious World Cup campaign. His sublime form for the Waikato Chiefs in the current Super Rugby campaign has seen him finally fulfil his potential and he recently claimed the starting second-five-eighth position for the All Blacks. He can now be considered as one of the finest players in the code and a genuine superstar.
Williams has also built up an impressive boxing portfolio and the New Zealand Rugby Union allowed him to compete in a number of bouts while contracted to them. He’s currently New Zealand heavyweight champion and under the watchful eye of the divisive Anthony Mundine, a former Australian rugby league player and IBO middleweight champion among other titles, plans to continue to develop this career.
What remains to be seen is which rugby code will provide the canvas as background to his boxing career. This week he announced that he was quitting New Zealand rugby union to take up a short-term contract worth AUD1.2m with Japanese rugby union side, the Panasonic Wild Knights, before returning to the NRL for one season in 2013. On New Year’s Day Williams and manager, Khoder Nasser, were “spotted” having a coffee with Sydney Roosters Chairman Nick Politis and Channel Nine boss David Gyngell at Circular Quay, a Sydney tourism hotspot.
The news that he’ll more than likely sign a one-season deal with the Roosters has the Sydney press, who rightly lashed him for walking out on the Bulldogs mid-contract, cock-a-hoop with excitement about what he’ll bring to the NRL, but there are some, including former Roosters and Kangaroo legend Brad Fittler, who are cautious about the short-term nature of the potential deal. Fittler, according to Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, feels that “it’s a massive gamble but I love the fact the Roosters look like they’ve been able to entice Sonny back into the NRL. The only question mark I would have is how long is Sonny Bill going to stay for? Recent history says Sonny only likes signing short- term deals. For me, that’s a risk.”
Roy Masters has an interesting take on Sonny Bill’s original defection in “Higher, Richer, Sleazier” (2010):
“While some suspect Sonny Bill’s problems with injury, rather than his desire to eventually play for the All Blacks, was the main motivation for him switching codes and countries, there are other factors in the global spread of talent…Money isn’t always the main lure for leaguies to play rugby in France, although Europe’s liberal tax laws are an incentive. NRL players may see it as a way to avoid the drudgery of full-time training, where they are breathalysed, weighed, tested for body fat, and forced to endure hours of weights, tedious training drills and video replays. Many tire of the incessant media scrutiny and the questioning by club supports on the relatively new fan forum of the internet. Switching to a less physically intense game is another reason, together with the desire for a more relaxed lifestyle at the end of a brutal career.”
Why then is he returning to league? Sonny Bill Williams is a mungo, parlance Down Under for people associated with rugby league. League is in his blood, indeed his Uncle Ron played for the Kiwis. It’s the game he loves more than any other so there’s no doubt that there’s an itch to be scratched, and this may be the only time he can do it. If anything though it feels like this is a year of atonement for past behaviour – when he devastated friends and fans of the Bulldogs as well as the greater Sydney and Kiwi league communities – and a final fling with a lost love before he returns to the more lucrative and high profile business of representing the All Blacks at the 2015 World Cup, and finally building a worthy legacy.
I don’t think there’s much of a chance that my uncle in Connemara or indeed the old man sitting in the bar in Peacocks in Maam Cross will be allowed to forget about Sonny Bill Williams any time soon.