Breaking the mould

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day Sport Monthly, says Sonny Bill Williams, far from being a sell-out to rugby union, is a pioneer.

Williams could play his last rugby union match in New Zealand when the Chiefs host the Crusaders in the first Super Rugby semi-final and Keohane argues that those with unique sporting talent should not be financially punished because of the limitations of those around them.

The only surprise in Sonny Bill Williams’ professional sporting career was the abruptness with which he left the Sydney Bulldogs, the only team he has played for where there was an emotional attachment. Williams loved the Bulldogs in a manner Dan Carter loves the Crusaders, Jean de Villiers the Stormers and Victor Matfield the Bulls.

Williams left New Zealand as a 15-year-old to take up an apprenticeship with the Bulldogs, made the senior squad before his 18th birthday and won the grand final with the Bulldogs in his first season proper as a 19-year-old.

The Bulldogs is the team which Williams associated with sporting ambition. He was a rugby league player who never had aspirations of playing for the All Blacks.

In effect he was more Australian than Kiwi when he signed with the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) in 2010. Williams has never attempted to disguise the motivation behind his decision to test himself in rugby union. It only came about because of former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga’s influence when Umaga played alongside and coached Williams at the French club Toulon four years ago.

Williams stunned Australians when he quit the Bulldogs midway through his contract. The shock turned to anger and the sporting public voted him the most hated man in Australia.

Those suggesting Williams has turned his back on the All Blacks and on New Zealand rugby are emotional and have not considered that Williams never chased the All Blacks jersey – the chasing was done by the NZRU bosses and it was because of Umaga’s belief that the player could be massive for the All Blacks and an inspiration to New Zealand rugby.

Williams was good for the All Blacks in his first season in November 2010 and brilliant in the three-Test series against Ireland. His performance in the third and final Test was his best for the All Blacks and at the final whistle he could rightly claim to be the form international No 12, not just in New Zealand but in the world.

De Villiers, generally considered the best inside centre in the game in the past five years, is playing outside centre for the Springboks and the imposing Welshman Jamie Roberts did not play against Australia because of injury.

Anyone who disputes what Williams has achieved in rugby is deluded. His impact in the New Zealand domestic game was as dramatic and immediate as that of Jonah Lomu in 1994, and probably even more remarkable because his first introduction to rugby union was a 15-month spell at Toulon in the south of France after he quit rugby league.

Williams was a revelation in the 2011 Super Rugby season for the Crusaders. He was so different to anyone who had played professional rugby at inside centre. He did things no other player has ever done in that position in a sport he had been playing for just 15 months.

Those who dismiss his qualities on the field can only do so out of disappointment that he won’t be playing rugby union in 2013. But the New Zealand public has not seen the last of him in an All Blacks jersey because he is good enough to return in 2014 or even as late as the 2015 Super Rugby season and make the All Blacks World Cup squad.

Williams never tried to con the New Zealand rugby public about his motives for leaving France. He said Umaga had planted the seed in the form of a challenge to the player to take himself out of the comfort zone in France and test himself against the best in rugby union. Umaga was adamant Williams had the qualities to succeed, but more than that he saw first-hand the unique skills that no other current inside centre possesses or has ever possessed.

When he did play for the All Blacks, Williams was good and in his 17th Test he was exceptional. He is that good and if he committed to rugby union until his sporting days ended the potential of him being acknowledged as an All Blacks great would no doubt have been realised. His decision to put on hold that possibility means the traditional New Zealand rugby supporter will never afford him that, but again that has never been the motivation for Williams.

When he arrived in New Zealand he stated that he had a year to make an impact and prove to himself that he could play the sport at the highest level. He has certainly done that.

He has achieved his goal, even if the rugby public’s goals were something quite different.

Williams has never disrespected the All Blacks jersey and he has never asked for a handout. So many have been quick to condemn the decision but significantly there has been nothing but praise for the player from his team-mates at the Chiefs and the All Blacks and from his former team-mates at the Crusaders.

Carter, who was so important to Williams’ rugby union development in the 2011 Super Rugby season, said anyone engrained in rugby union would want Williams to stay because of his qualities as a player. Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks backline coach and the man who continued the mentorship of Williams at the Chiefs, said it had been astonishing how quickly Williams had matured into a world-class rugby union player.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie added that the public perception was that Williams was a law unto himself because of the unique nature of his contract with the NZRU, which made provisions for him to continue his professional boxing career, but that it was not the case among those who worked with him on a daily basis.

Williams, far from being a sell-out to rugby union, is a pioneer. Think about it. He has never settled for comfort or convenience. He has said he has another five years as a professional sportsman and he wanted to maximise his earning potential, be it through boxing, rugby union or rugby league.

He initially had not planned to stay in New Zealand’s domestic rugby union competition this year and he has only ever operated on short-term contracts since leaving the Bulldogs. The attitude of the New Zealand rugby bosses towards Williams has been nothing but positive and it would be a surprise if he didn’t find inspiration in the challenge of a starring role in the 2015 rugby union World Cup in England.

Why begrudge a player his right to maximise his income? Why make him choose one or the other? All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s primary goal will be to defend the World Cup and he will want to select the best possible squad. If Williams commits to a year in rugby union in 2015 he would be an asset to the campaign.

The disapproval of Williams’ way among traditionalists of the sport is not dissimilar to what I heard so many South African supporters say when Frans Steyn signed a three-year contract to play in France after being instrumental to the Springboks’ 2007 World Cup success.

Steyn won a World Cup as a 20-year-old, yet was accused of lacking loyalty to the Boks because his talent allowed for a better deal in Europe than he could ever be offered playing domestically in South Africa.

I can’t wait for the game to finally grow up professionally where a player is selected for his country because he is the best. Isn’t that why it is called Test rugby? The best should play the best? Rugby is a business and it is a profession for those who earn a living from playing. Why punish those with exceptional talent?

Steyn challenged the status quo because he backed his ability to perform on the biggest stage. There wasn’t a heck of a lot of support for his inclusion in the 2011 World Cup squad. He was also accused of chasing the money. Which professional in any other business doesn’t chase the bigger payday?

Supporters and many within the rugby media need to mature and accept the reality of the game’s evolution to something far more significant than those who support rugby and will always only ever see it as a sport.

Steyn was outstanding in New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup and the Boks, as we saw in the World Cup quarter-final and in the third Test against England in June, are a weaker unit when he does not play. The same will be true of Williams’ absence from the All Blacks squad.

Good teams become great teams because of the depth in the squad. Williams, like Steyn, has something most who play the game don’t have, yet there is such a reluctance to acknowledge a player’s right to earn the most he can.

Steyn and those who manage his career were labelled the villains and lacking loyalty to South Africa. In New Zealand similar accusations have been levelled at Williams, among the public and within the media; simply because neither he nor his manager Khoder Nasser conform to what is really an outdated view on the sport.

If Williams is good enough to command the kind of money he will earn from a five-month stint in rugby union in Japan, a season in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) and however long his professional boxing career can last, then it is something to be admired and applauded.

Williams and Steyn are the risk takers, which could explain why they are also among the best in what they do. The majority of the sport’s players want the comfort of three-year contracts because of the supposed need for job security.

But the nature of this business is that there is always a conveyor belt of emerging employees and often players are still on national contracts but aren’t good enough in the third year to be making the squad on performance.

Williams demands the highest possible financial reward every year but accepts he won’t have a job if he doesn’t perform. I’d rather have that kind of mindset among players than the collective safe haven of settling on one price and one code because that is the way it has always been done.

Williams says he has no regrets about the decision because he made a commitment to return to the NRL when he walked away and the emotion of playing for the All Blacks and the enjoyment he got from being a rugby player in New Zealand could not override the practical business decisions of what was best for his professional career.

Players who are willing to challenge themselves are the loyalists to excellence. Williams has unfinished business in rugby league. Not so in rugby union.

He never said he wanted to be remembered as a great of the game. He said he wanted to prove to himself he was capable of playing Test rugby and through that performance earn the respect of his team-mates, coaches, the opposition and those who support the All Blacks and the game in New Zealand.

He has more than done that. The story of Sonny Bill Williams is what he has achieved in less than two years in New Zealand rugby; not the fact that he may never feel it a motivation or challenge to return to the code.

Brad Thorn, now regarded as an All Blacks great, also returned to rugby league after the 2003 World Cup. He didn’t play in the 2007 World Cup but peaked as a rugby union player at the World Cup in 2011.

Carter and Richie McCaw have made their decisions to stay in New Zealand out of choice and not necessity. The NZRU leaders applied business practice to their two most prized assets, signed them until the end of their careers and allowed for a sabbatical between now and 2015, be that in the form of a break or a spell overseas playing club rugby.

Many who support the game deemed it a radical decision and the accusation was of preferential treatment to individuals in a team sport.

But those sporting codes that are businesses are no different to any other business, where the ethos of one company should not be confused with the individual value of those who make up the business.

Williams has an individual worth that does not need to be limited to making the choice of one code for the next five years. If he returns to New Zealand as a union player they will get a better result out of him than had he stayed for the wrong reason.

Steyn will be a greater asset to the Springboks now than had he stayed out of supposed loyalty and lost out financially in 2008. He would have been out of here now, probably never to return.

If Williams had stayed because of the feel-good factor at the Chiefs I doubt he would have been around in rugby union in 2015. I reckon he’ll be back for the All Blacks because he may just feel he wants to start in a World Cup final and not just make the match 22.

And if he doesn’t he should be remembered for doing more in 18 months than most players do in a decade.

– This article appears in the latest issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, on sale now at selected retailers. The magazine is distributed FREE with Business Day newspaper on the second last Friday of the month.