Over to you, Sonny

MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sports Monthly, says Sonny Bill Williams has the ability to have as big an impact on world rugby as Jonah Lomu did.

Before South Africans show their patriotism, perhaps even ignorance, and counter any reference to Sonny Bill Williams with the emphatic statement that like Jonah Lomu he will never do it against the Springboks, appreciate that the Sonny Bill Williams story, like that of Lomu, is a bit bigger than whether or not he does it against the Boks.

Also appreciate that Lomu did do it against the Boks, several times. If you refer to his try-scoring record of zero in 13 Tests, that’s the ignorance I am talking about. You are right that Lomu didn’t score in the 1995 World Cup final against the Springboks and didn’t score in the 1999 World Cup third place play-off, but Christian Cullen (fullback) and Jeff Wilson (wing) scored a combined 20 tries in Tests against South Africa, many of them thanks to Lomu keeping half the Bok defence busy. By the way, no other players in the history of the game have scored as many tries against the Boks as Cullen and Wilson and they played in the Lomu era.

Lomu was more than just a try-scorer. He was a revelation to rugby union in the mid-90s and he was a once-in-a-generation, perhaps even lifetime, player. No wing has since emerged with his size and pace and with the ability to so easily break the first tackle. No winger since has come close to matching Lomu’s appeal and impact. No union player, until Williams six months ago, has evoked similar excitement and debate.

I am not saying he will win New Zealand the World Cup or even win the Crusaders this season’s Super Rugby title. His appeal is not in who is winning what, but in what he does on the field that has kids wanting to be him … they covet the tattoos, the haircut, the six-pack, the mystique and mostly they want the offload in the tackle.

My 11-year-old boy told me he threw ‘two Sonny Bills’ at training the other day. He goes to school in Cape Town and the fact that Williams is a New Zealander means nothing. He wants to be him and he wants to throw passes when three guys have gang-tackled him and believe it is not possible that he can still make a pass. After all, Sonny Bill can do it.

Every young cricketer in the world wanted to be Shane Warne and bowl the flipper. Every soccer hopeful wanted to bend it like Beckham and now the young rugby wannabes want to be Sonny Bill and throw Sonny Bills.

‘I think he is changing the face of the game. People have been able to offload in the past, but not with the ease with which he does it,’ says (former All Blacks golden boy and Lomu team-mate) Jeff Wilson. ‘It has become such a weapon that it’s creating space for other people. I think he is a revelation to the game and has already made such an impact. You go to training runs now and watch the kids – offloading is the thing. They all want to throw these backhanded passes.’

Wilson and Lomu were the All Blacks wingers for five years and both made their Test debuts as 19-year-olds. There is no person better qualified to make a comparison between Williams and Lomu.

‘In terms of his impact and how unique his skills are, he is the Lomu of this generation,’ says Wilson.

Sonny Bill Williams is a phenomenon and whether or not he scores a try against the Boks in 2011, makes a linebreak or offloads in the tackle … as rugby lovers we should feel privileged to see him play in this country.
Just like with Lomu, there’s the anticipation he brings to every occasion.

When he plays you expect the miracle pass and already there have been games when he’s done more than any other midfielder in Super Rugby and it feels like he has not performed. That’s his appeal. That was Lomu in his prime. If the big winger beat two tackles and got stopped by the third defender he had let us down. These days if a winger breaks one tackle he is a monster. We had come to expect four or five defenders to be beaten every time Lomu got the ball, be it in space or not.

I remember being at Eden Park in Auckland in 1996 when Lomu scored for the Blues in a 30-26 win against the Bulls. He got the ball standing still on the Bulls 22 and walked the distance to the tryline with as many as seven Bulls defenders on him by the time he scored. Williams, in the past six months, has thrown effective offloads, with anything from two to five defenders on him.

In his first 280 minutes of Super Rugby he made 26 effective offloads in the tackle and broke the line nine times. Dan Carter, who plays on his inside, offloaded nine times in nearly 400 minutes of rugby. The two best South African No 12s, Jean de Villiers and Wynand Olivier, made two offloads in the tackle respectively and two linebreaks each in 400 minutes. And they are two of the best midfielders in the competition.

Williams is the exception when it comes to midfield play because he possesses a skill other midfielders don’t have. Legendary Welsh union and league international Scott Gibbs says he’d have loved to have played against Williams – and alongside him.

‘He’s that good,’ says Gibbs. ‘He just gets the pulse racing. I’d just want to have a go at him, taunt him to come at me. He will get the best out of any opponent because he is setting the standard. I think he’s been brilliant for the game. He’s an example of the skills that exist in league, although I can’t recall any player in league or union who consistently made such effective offloads in the tackle. Any player who can do that adds a new dimension to the game, especially if he is playing in the midfield, and that’s got to be good for the game’s evolution.’

Gibbs is not alone in believing there will be days when defences nullify the Sonny Bill factor and he thinks Williams’ greatest union examination will be against the Stormers midfielders De Villiers and Fourie on 7 May at Newlands.

‘They have the minerals, mentally and physically. Don’t forget, Sonny Bill’s only played union in New Zealand for less than a year. He was at Toulon adapting from league to union for two seasons but what he’s up against now is the real thing in Super Rugby. He’s a bloody quick learner and he’s brilliant for the game, but he has bigger tests to come and with that also comes the possibility of him raising the bar even more.’

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder and All Blacks coach Graham Henry don’t know what is possible with Williams. Henry raved about the player’s skills set, as did the Kiwis rugby league coach Frank Endacott in 2004 when he made his league international debut. Endacott, in 2004 and Henry, in 2010, said the same thing: ‘I’ve never seen a player with such unique skills.’

The code has changed for Sonny Bill … the imagery hasn’t. Google any match of the Canterbury Bulldogs in rugby league in 2004 and you’ll see Williams in a collision with two or more players and the ball will be offloaded. Fast forward to 2010 with the Canterbury Crusaders. Different team, different code … same picture.

Williams was just 15 when he became the youngest player signed to Sydney’s Canterbury Bulldogs and he was only 18 when he made his international league debut. His career has always been about delivery on the field, if not always off it.

Williams has been no exception to the story of any teenage sporting sensation asked to lead in a man’s world. He’s done the drunken binge, been caught in a compromising position with a female model in a public toilet and been fined for urinating outside a nightclub.

He walked away from the Bulldogs club he said was the sporting love of his life 18 months into a five-year contract to play union at Toulon in France and was branded Money Bill Williams. When he apologised for his drunken behaviour he was mocked as Sorry Bill Williams, but whenever he won games because of his sporting ability he was simply Sonny Bill Williams.

He is the first Muslim to play for the All Blacks, having converted in 2008 and he is the only athlete to simultaneously pursue careers as a professional rugby player and a professional heavyweight boxer. He is also only the second New Zealander to play for the All Blacks after having played for the Kiwis.

Williams’ story started in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert and the Bulldogs benefited from the astute eye of talent scout John Ackland, who convinced the 15-year-old to leave Auckland for the Bulldogs Rugby League Academy in Sydney. Nearly a decade later, in the south of France, his story steered him back to New Zealand thanks to the influence of retired All Blacks captain Tana Umaga and the phone call from his mom Lee in Auckland, who told her son it was time he ‘came home and proved he could be an All Black’.

Williams, in several interviews, has been consistent about his mother Lee’s influence on his life and career. He admitted her request that he return to New Zealand contributed to his decision to say yes to the New Zealand Rugby Union’s R5 million deal over 18 months and no to Toulon’s R30 million offer over three years.

The biggest factor, though, was playing alongside retired All Blacks captain and legend Umaga at Toulon. Both student and master shared a respect for their Samoan heritage and for league. But Umaga challenged him to do the double and prove to New Zealanders he could be as good an All Black as he was a Kiwi.

Umaga, on leaving Toulon, gave Williams the All Blacks jersey he used in the last of his 74 Tests. It was a significant gesture because it convinced Williams that the only thing better than a gift All Blacks jersey is an earned one.

– This article first appeared in the May edition of Business Day Sport Monthly. The magazine is distributed FREE with the newspaper on the second last Friday of every month, and is also on sale for R29.95.