HE CAME. HE saw. He off-loaded. He conquered.
Or did he? The four year tenure of Sonny Bill Williams in rugby union was a whirlwind of brilliance, frustration and never short of talking points.
The fanfare and anticipation of his arrival in the game was unprecedented; not since Jonah Lomu had one player sparked such global discussion in rugby union.
There is something about Williams that transcends simply being a professional athlete. There is a magnetic quality to him that, like most iconic sports stars, is hard to define. It is not just the fact that he is supremely talented or marketable or has a movie star name. There is a certain aura about him which has intrigued fans across the world.
Williams was the most famous face in the NRL when he famously walked out on the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008 soon after signing a five-year deal with the franchise, choosing to join Toulon and has since become a powerhouse in the fifteen man code. As noted in every piece on Williams, he has also simultaneously pursued his boxing career, although his standard of opponents to date wouldn’t exactly have Mike Tyson shaking in his boots.
So after stints with Toulon, the Crusaders and the Chiefs, as well as seventeen caps for the All Blacks and a World Cup medal, Sonny Bill is now jetting off to Japan to play a couple of games before returning to rugby league. Should we be surprised? No. The Kiwi was always non-committal regarding his future and a return to league at some stage always seemed a distinct possibility.
However, it is disappointing more than anything for rugby union fans. Williams himself admitted in his press conference on Monday that he felt like he had found his home in rugby union at the Chiefs and his form this season would suggest that he had finally figured it all out. Dislodging Ma’a Nonu from the All Blacks side and ripping it up in Super Rugby, this should have been the start of a Sonny Bill Williams dominance in the game. Instead, it is a parting gift.
The SBW off-load has become a skill in itself and it must be noted that Sonny Bill has contributed to rugby union in many constructive ways. The way Williams plays the game promotes positive play and he has brought something truly unique and exciting to the sport.
Similarly, his iconic global status has helped the game reach people and plains it may not have done without him. Much of the bitterness about him leaving is due to the fact that he will be missed. But not all of it..
All about the dollar?
Although the people of New Zealand are obsessive about rugby, it is still a small country with a relatively small economy and attendances at games are not huge by any stretch of the imagination. In short, Sonny Bill would get paid more elsewhere. Williams stands to make a reported $1.2 million for 12 matches with the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan and will command up to $800,000 a year for the Sydney Roosters in the NRL. Not bad.
There is no doubt that money is a motivating factor for Williams. He is making the most of his ability to earn the greatest amount of wealth possible in what is a short career. Although he made noises about ‘honouring a handshake agreement’ in his press conference, Sonny Bill is clearly not burdened by the weight of loyalty.
This is the man who signed a five year contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs before walking out on them and is now returning four years later to play for one of their fiercest rivals – the Sydney Roosters. Nice touch.
In his short tenure in union, Williams played for three different clubs including two Super Rugby franchises in New Zealand. No, Williams is most definitely not a ‘one club man’ in the vein of a Brian O’Driscoll, Martin Johnson or Richie McCaw and you get the feeling there are plenty more twists and turns in his career to come yet.
It doesn’t seem to be all about the money for Sonny Bill, however. The man seems to relish the fanfare that follows his movements. Perhaps it is difficult for him to do anything low-key, given his status, but Williams is certainly not afraid of the camera and perhaps enjoys the celebrity aspect to it all. You would half expect David Haye and David Chisora to pop out at his next press conference waving chairs in the air and calling him out.
There is no doubting the talent of Sonny Bill Williams. The man is an incredible athlete blessed with a supreme skill set. He never promised to hang around forever but it is disappointing for rugby fans to lose a player of his stature and ability nonetheless.
Williams may well return to rugby union at some stage but in switching codes again, he is diluting his own legacy. Rather than stay and dominate one sport, Williams is in danger of becoming remembered for the wrong reasons.
Does he care? Probably not.