At times it’s difficult to be sure what Sonny Bill Williams wants from his career. At only 26 he has already done a lot but it’s not clear where his heart is. As soon as one contract is signed speculation starts about what’s next. Rugby league, union and boxing have benefitted from his involvement and all want more from the SBW brand. Everyone seems to have a view about Sonny and what he offers but why are people reluctant to acknowledge his extraordinary talent?
At 17 Williams was the youngest player to ever sign for the Bulldogs, winning a Grand Final medal in his first year in the NRL, being described at the time as a large uncut diamond. He was first capped by the Kiwis in 2004 aged 19 and departed the Bulldogs under a well documented cloud of controversy. League’s loss was union and Toulon’s gain.
His two year stint in the south of France was his first experience of professional rugby and his transition was helped by the likes of Tana Umaga and Jerry Collins. However it was the relationship he developed with Jonny Wilkinson which proved most significant. The Lord Wandsworth College public school boy and the lad from Mount Albert Grammar made for an unlikely pairing.
Wilkinson was blown away by the league import. “He had talent I could only dream about” Wilkinson said in his autobiography. “I’d never seen a guy tackle as fiercely as he did and his offloads out of contact were incredible”. Williams was mentored by Wilkinson with the pair often taking extra one-on-one training together in addition to regular team sessions. It turned out that Wilkinson wanted to learn from Sonny Bill as much as he wanted to help him. Williams went on to describe Wilkinson as “the best bloke I’ve ever met during my playing days – hands down. We clicked and became like brothers”.
In addition to being hard working and hugely talented athletes both men are humble in a way not often seen in professional sport. Wilkinson is a shy man who was tortured by the prospect of speaking at England team meetings in his early days. He struggled with the public profile that came with his role in England’s world cup win in 2003. Williams is followed by a media circus wherever he goes and his every move is reported. This attention is partly due to the style of his manager Khoder Nasser but Williams handles these demands with aplomb.
In Wayne Smith, SBW has found a father figure who is giving him guidance both on and off the field, helping him realise his potential. He has made huge strides in the mere four years he’s been playing union and there is now a lot more to Sonny Bill than just off-loads. His timing and precision are exceptional, his physique is a testament to his professionalism and his work on defence and attack has been a critical factor in the Chiefs renaissance this season.
The less said about Williams’ boxing career the better and who knows where he will play next year. Sure he has made some errors of judgment along the way, but who hasn’t? People can criticise Sonny Bill and his management team as much as they like but surely for now we should relish the opportunity of watching this phenomenal athlete play the game. He is clearly the form second-five in New Zealand rugby and deserves his place in the All Blacks starting line in the upcoming series against Ireland.