MARC HINTON, writing in SA Rugby magazine, looks at how Sonny Bill Williams rejected a lucrative offer from Toulon to chase his All Blacks dream.
‘It’s time to come home, Sonny,’ said the mother. ‘Come home and prove that you can be an All Black.’ How could the 24-year-old Kiwi, who hadn’t really been ‘home’ since he left to try his hand as a rugby league apprentice in Sydney nine years earlier, say no to that request?
How could he turn his back on his destiny?
So, in the second week of June, a good few days after he’d finally made up his mind, former rugby league superstar, turned contract-breaker and defector, turned aspiring rugby union luminary, Sonny Bill Williams announced to the world that he was coming home to honour his mother, and to try to be an All Black.
It was big news in New Zealand, and almost as big in Australia where the young New Zealander first forged his sporting reputation as a ball-playing forward with the Bulldogs in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), and then made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2008. That, of course, was when he walked out on the west Sydney club mid-contract and defected to Toulon to play rugby in France.
Now he’s made another switch, though this one entirely legitimate – honourable even – after his two-season deal with Toulon had come to an end. The New Zealander, who played seven league Tests for the Kiwis between 2004 and 2008 and won a premiership with the Doggies in ’04, has decided to turn down a three-year deal purported to be worth as much as NZ$6 million (R32 million) to stay on in the south of France, and accepted a much, much lesser deal from the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) that carries with it a certain priceless black jersey.
Williams explains that it had been his mother, Lee, who lives in Auckland, who persuaded him that for all the indecision, he really only had one decision to make.
Nine long years ago she’d helped pack the bags of her then 15-year-old son as he headed to Sydney as the Bulldogs’ youngest-ever recruit. Now she told the boy: ‘It’s time to come home, Sonny. Come home and prove that you can be an All Black.’
‘It was a tough call,’ says Williams from Australia, where he’s preparing for his part on the undercard of a charity boxing night. ‘I was enjoying my time with Toulon … the money over there was quite unbelievable. But it’s always been a dream of mine to play for the All Blacks. It was something I couldn’t turn down.
‘One of the big factors was talking to my mum and she was really excited about me coming home. I’ve been away for a while and my mum really misses me. All my family are pretty much back home [he also has two sisters in Auckland and his partner Genna’s family live there]. I guess that was the deciding factor in the end.’
Asked what it would mean to his mother to see him one day wearing the black jersey of the All Blacks, Williams pauses before declaring: ‘It would mean the world to her. But the most important thing is me coming home. I’ve been away from her for a while and she’s just really excited to have me coming back.’
Many, particularly in Australia, will find it ironic that he’s put ambition, loyalty and family ahead of cold, hard cash in this decision. It had been speculated when he walked out on the Bulldogs in 2008 – a club he once said he’d be at ‘for life’ – with still four years left on his contract, it was largely because he was dissatisfied with the terms of the long-term deal he had been given.
But there was also a fascination with the 15-man code, going along with a realisation of the much larger sums that could be made in its midst. So he spent two years serving his second sporting apprenticeship with Toulon, and eventually the latent athleticism, the inordinate mix of natural talent and unnatural abilities, found his rugby career heading in the same direction as his league one before he walked out on it.
Williams was an undisputed superstar of the NRL before he left it. He’d gone from a teenage sensation to one of the competition’s iconic performers in just a few short years, and it was a gutsy – if unpopular – call to walk away from it into a sport where he had precious little background and no guarantees that he would cut it.
But two crucial aspects helped the moons align for Williams and New Zealand rugby. After a nightmare first year at Toulon ruined by injury, his body finally started holding up enough for him to string games together in year two. And he found himself alongside former All Blacks captain, and iconic New Zealander, Tana Umaga at the French club.
Umaga’s role became a multi-faceted one. The veteran midfielder was not only a mentor and guiding light for his young countryman, but a confidante too. And as the two would spend hour upon hour talking rugby in their southern French enclave, Williams suddenly gained an insight into the special world of the All Blacks. The more he heard, the more it fascinated him.
Then, when Williams was about to head south to make his big decision, Umaga gifted him the All Blacks jersey he wore in his 74th, and final, Test at Murrayfield.
‘Just getting that jersey gave me butterflies. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to put on the real thing,’ he reflects.
Umaga also had a direct line back to the All Blacks coaching hierarchy and was in the ideal position to provide realistic assessments of the young man and his transition to his new sport. His assessment persuaded the NZRU to dig as deep as it could to get its man.
‘I always confided in him in France. I’ve had long talks about New Zealand and the rugby over there, and it’s always been really appealing to me,’ reflected Williams after announcing his NZRU deal. ‘Tana has been great. It was unreal to have him in France and to learn from him.’
For his part, Henry has a realistic attitude about this young man who’s viewed principally as a midfielder, though he has even played some football in the loose forwards during his time in Toulon.
They see the upside, the athleticism, the potential, and they figure why not? Why not add him to midfield resources that already number Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Luke McAlister and Benson Stanley. Just one more option in a sport that is known to demand them.
‘We think he’s got huge potential and he’s starting to prove that,’ says Henry. In terms of next year’s World Cup, the simple assessment is ‘he could be a real factor … there are not too many rugby league players who have adjusted as quickly as he has … Tana is very positive about Sonny Bill’s ability, so the vibes are good.’
But Henry also acknowledges there’s a gamble to this signing. ‘I don’t know whether Sonny Bill is going to be good enough and I don’t think Sonny Bill knows himself,’ says Henry. But there’s only one way to find out.
Williams is also not arrogant, or silly, enough to make any bold predictions at this stage. In fact he’s remarkably realistic.
‘It’s a very big risk,’ he says, ‘because there’s a big chance I might not make it. But I’m always one for a challenge and it’s just too big an opportunity – I couldn’t let it slip through my hands without giving it a try.’
Williams also feels he’s equipped to handle the fishbowl existence he’ll inevitably lead in New Zealand as a high-profile All Blacks aspirant. That may not always have been so – during his NRL days a drunk-driving charge, a fine for urinating in public and being caught in a compromising position with a high-profile model in a Sydney club all had the young Williams struggling in the glare of the media spotlight.
‘I’m 24 now and I feel I’ll be sweet,’ he says. ‘It’s been a great two years in France because it’s a really easy-going lifestyle. But when you want to try and play for one of the biggest sporting brands in the world that comes with the territory. I’m coming back home with a clear head and with goals set in my mind and anything that comes outside that, I just have to deal with.’
Williams is a charismatic individual, and it’s hard to see him not endearing himself to the Kiwi public. He says he hopes they embrace his ambition.
‘You are always going to have your knockers. Like my old lady said – you’re a Kiwi boy, you have just got to come back and have a go. I feel the average bloke on the street will accept that and get behind me. I am a Kiwi and I’m coming back to have a crack.’
As mentioned, there are doubts. Williams considers them natural. But there’s also a cool, calm confidence that tends to be the preserve of the truly gifted.
‘This year, after stringing 20 games together, I felt pretty comfortable with my progression,’ he says. ‘I feel that if put myself in the right situation back in New Zealand I can grow as a player and hopefully the confidence will come.’
Williams decided to sign a two-year deal with Canterbury that will see him play for them in the National Provincial Championship and for the Crusaders in next year’s Super Rugby tournament.
He turned down a far more lucrative deal with Hawkes Bay, which has been reported as being twice what North Harbour were prepared to pay.
He’ll probably play at No 12 for Canterbury and the Crusaders, which will see him looming outside none other than Dan Carter. Smart guy.
‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know if you’re going to play alongside Dan Carter you’re going to improve your game,’ he says. But he remains deeply humble about the path in front of him.
‘I know it’s going to bring the best out of me,’ he says. ‘I’m not expecting fireworks from the start … but I have higher expectations of myself than probably anyone else does. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. That comes down to training, to putting your arse down and working hard.’
It’s that sort of attitude, rather than the hype that is a constant companion of this young man, that seems set to see him meet his goals. And his mum’s.
– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine.