Sonny Bill Williams: Maverick or Mercenary?

At a confessional press conference earlier this week, Sonny Bill Williams confirmed his departure from the goldfish bowl of New Zealand rugby to take up a lucrative contract in Japan, and that on his return he would play in the NRL.

Sonny Bill Williams

His reward for such a stint is rumoured to be as much as $2.5 million for two years’ work. An emotional Williams sought to explain the rationale behind the decision by telling the gathering of journalists that the money was simply too good to turn down, and that some time ago he had made a “handshake agreement” to play rugby league in Australia. Strangely that long-agreed deal still has not been finalised.

Given the fall-out from the last time he reneged on a deal in the NRL, Williams and his advisers have tried to learn their lessons. The fans of the NRL team Canterbury Bankstown have still not forgiven him for walking out of a five year deal to join Toulon, whilst the team was at the bottom of the league, and Williams has never apologised. Yet his candour that it is the money rings more true than his protestations that he will return to play for the Chiefs in two years’ time and play for them for nothing.

Perhaps, he is taking a far greater risk than he realises or simply that he is so confident in his own ability that he will still be the man the Chiefs and the All Blacks will want to build their teams around. But, what if Hansen decides to move Carter to first 5/8; would he drop the iconic, reliable Carter to accommodate the prodigal Williams?

Around these events there is sense of “déjà vu”, and this was not unexpected. After all, Williams has not played a great deal of his professional rugby in NZ. Clearly, there is a sense of adventure about him. To keep himself interested he needs new challenges, and that if he stays too long in one place, he gets stale and ultimately fails to achieve the goals he has set himself. After all, as he already possesses a Rugby World Cup medal, maybe he’d like a Rugby League one too?

He has decided to put on hold a burgeoning rugby union career that would have doubtless seen him eventually enter the pantheon of All Black greats. Greatness is a label that can only be earned by sustained excellence, an epithet accorded only to a few. Longevity is the key and Williams cannot lay claim to that, but at this time he is not bothered by his legacy, he has chosen to live in the moment.

There can be no doubt about his quality. His play against Ireland was superb leaving the vaunted duo of O’Driscoll and Darcy grasping at air; at times he was unplayable. Despite his large frame, Williams possesses quick feet and even faster softer hands as he languidly left the Irish in his wake he ensured that the All Blacks appeared to be able to score at will. When Williams plays he always attracts interest, people stand up when he starts to run expecting something to happen and they are rarely disappointed.

That is at the crux of the frustration his decision has caused; he was taking rugby union to the next level in terms of skill, athleticism and the finding of space on a cluttered field. He was the future. For the traditionalists of the game, the fact that he has left the international field for money will make them shake their reactionary heads in disbelief and complain further about this generation of players not understanding their roots or the culture of the game.

Williams is well aware that playing rugby professionally is a short-term career that can be over in an instant – he has been seriously injured before and knows that he has to make the most of the talent he has.

His decision to leave is the right one for Sonny Bill Williams. Only time will tell if he has indeed been honest in his promise to return, or will the siren call of a full wallet be what Williams really wants?

By Gareth Hughes

7 thoughts on “Sonny Bill Williams: Maverick or Mercenary?

      1. The funny thing is that NZ are the only team in the world who wont be affected by his absence!

  1. “His reward for such a stint is rumoured to be as much as $2.5 million…” end of discussion. He is setting himself up for life, protecting himself against career threatening injuries, dip in form, vagaries of selection.

    Being an All Black great won’t keep the heating on or give his kids a better start in life. I guess you could call all that mercenary but why is that term always used in the pejorative sense? Of course he’s a mercenary, as are most people who get paid to work for a living. If the job is decent (it’s still rugby in Japan), doesn’t hurt anyone, sets you up for life (either financially or develops your career) then anyone would take it. As he himself suggests, this pay packet could see him play Union in the future for nothing, so it’ll give him the freedom then to look beyond being “mercenary” and play for titles, kudos, etc. Until then (and again, I’d say this applies to all of us who have to rely on ourselves financially) he goes where the money is. Cannot criticize him at all.

  2. Brighty
    Many thanks for such a thoughtful reply. I agreee with the majority of your sentiments. Where I am really disappointed is that we won’t see him on the field here in November.

    1. Yep, couldn’t agree more. It’s always a shame to see brilliant players leave the game. I feel the same about Henson though obviously the reasons for him not reaching his potential are much different (he’s a complete tool). At least we managed to avoid Hansen consigning Shane to the rubbish heap or we’d have lost two modern Welsh greats instead of just one. Also I painfully remember the guts being ripped out of potentially great 80s Welsh teams by the northern league teams… the same teams who now ironically moan about the RFU pinching all of their best prospects … but I’m digressing now…

  3. Big fan of Sonny Bill. I don’t think he is mercenary at all. I think he has goals, and he wants to achieve them. In 2010 Toulon reportedly tabled a three-year offer to Williams worth $6 million, while the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) could only come up with $550,000 per year. Williams rejected Toulon in a bid to play for the All Blacks in the World Cup. Having won the World Cup in RU, he probably feels that he has unfinished business in RL.

    Greatness can be viewed in many ways, but being a RU and RL world cup winner, as well as a heavy weight boxing champion would put him right up there with NZ greats in my opinion.

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