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.
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