Far from a mercenary, Sonny Bill has an NRL plan
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Fellow Roarer Scott Woodward started the rumours off, and it looks like he was spot on. Sonny Bill Williams is going back to where it all began, the NRL.
Last year I wrote an article which tried to reason whether SBW is worth all the negotiation fuss. Many articles have been written on that same topic, and after the rumors become official many more will be.
The questions are ones we all know. Why can’t SBW commit to more than a year? What does he actually want to do? SBW was just getting to grips with rugby, why change now?
Before I get to those questions I’ll briefly look at the ringleader of the whole circus, Khoder Nasser. At a Men Of League gala dinner a few years, comedian Vince Sorrenti ago said the following. “David Gallop is caught in a lift with three people: Osama Bin Laden, Khoder Nasser, and Adolf Hitler. Gallop has a gun, but only two bullets. What does he do? Shoots Khoder twice!”
As talented as SBW is, he would not be getting paid anywhere near $2 million a season if it weren’t for Nasser. He is very lucky to have Nasser in his corner. Negotiating such short term, option-heavy deals is extremely complicated. It’s not only hard on the New Zealand rugby union and NRL, its equally draining on SBW’s camp.
No normal agent would have the time, resources or sheer audacity to achieve these sort of outcomes. Having only two clients in Mundine and SBW (given Cooper and Paterson are almost hobbies for Nasser) means that Nasser is able to spend much more time on SBW’s deals.
Most people understand that professional athletes have a short career, and how important it is to make the most of it. In SBW’s case the fans want to know what he’s trying to achieve. Is it purely about money?
The missing piece to this very complicated puzzle is boxing. Most people are dismissing this as a sideline or a joke, but the SBW camp are very serious about it.
For all the criticism that SBW receives about his boxing, his camp firmly believe that SBW can be a success at the sweet science. Most fans are basing their judgements about SBW’s boxing prospects from what they see now. What Nasser and Mundine are banking on is what SBW will be like as a boxer in five years’ time. Everyone has to start somewhere. While they’re lucrative, SBW’s football talents will complicate the boxing issue, but it doesn’t change the direction that they’re headed in.
This was much the same as when SBW first came to rugby. The critics judged what they saw in front of them and spoke as if he would never improve as a rugby player. It took roughly four years but now SBW has developed into a world class rugby midfielder.
SBW has clearly stated that training for a fight during rugby season doesn’t work. He tried it last year and his form suffered, costing him the best chance of making the All Black starting line-up for the World Cup.
The pathway that SBW is taking now gives him the best chance to make better improvements as a boxer while still getting paid quite handsomely.
Signing again with the New Zealand rugby union would mean that SBW would probably finish up for 2012 in December. That doesn’t give him much in terms of a preparation for an off-season fight. That would also mean that he won’t fight again until the next off-season. Like this season, technically he would be able to fight, but his All Black position would not be as solid as it normally would be if he were take up a bout.
Personally last year I didn’t see the upside of SBW returning to the NRL, but when you look at it from the point of view of what will improve SBW as a boxer then the move to Bondi Junction makes sense.
One, travel. Travel is part and parcel of being a pro footballer, which has made it hard for SBW to put in the proper boxing training necessary to improve. With the Mundine Camp in Redfern, only seven kilometres from Bondi Junction, getting extra boxing training with the right trainers will be much easier. Also basing himself in Sydney will lessen the travel load.
Two, easy money. The stint in Japan will make SBW’s prep for his next fight much easier because of the low standard of play in Japanese rugby. The return will be huge because SBW be getting around $100K per game.
Three, the challenge. The NRL is the physically toughest footy code in the world. The collisions are hard and fast. SBW loves the physical side of the game, and with some big forwards hitting their straps I’m sure SBW would want to test himself.
Clearly the SBW Camp isn’t too worried about SBW’s global appeal yet (for PPV fights) because if that were the case he would have been better off staying with rugby. They probably weighed up the pro and cons and decided that for this year at least the NRL was the best option.
A common criticism of SBW is that he is just a highly paid mercenary that goes to the highest bidder. When you actually look at the details it becomes obvious that this tag is grossly unfair.
In 2005 SBW knocked back AUD$3 million from St Helens that would have made him the highest-paid league player in the world. In 2010 the French publication Midi Olympique reported that SBW knocked back a three-year, NZD$6 million offer from Toulon. This would have made him the highest-paid player in either code.
Instead he signed for the New Zealand rugby union, on an offer worth $NZ 550,000. That’s about 25% of his market worth.
In June 2011 SBW donated NZD$100,000 from his fight pursue to the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal.
Adding up the contracts from St Helens and Toulon will show that SBW has actually knocked back about $AUD 7.7M. Hardly the actions of a money-hungry mercenary. This also puts to rest the criticism that he always take the easy route. An easy route would be to stay in France for the next three years earning NZD$2 million a season, not trying to fit in boxing matches during the NRL season.
Another criticism involves the short contracts. This is quite an easy question to answer. SBW actually values his freedom as a pro athlete more than money. He has knocked back lucrative endorsement contracts from companies like Adidas because of the conditions it would place him under. For example if he were to become an ambassador for Adidas he wouldn’t be able to play league.
Last week rugby journalist Marc Hinton wrote “I know for a fact sponsors are queuing up to add his name to their stable. A certain sportswear manufacturer, for one, would practically write a blank cheque to be able to splash him on their billboards.” But SBW keeps knocking these opportunities back.
The reason is the same as the short contracts: the freedom to move on if you’re not happy. It would be interesting to know how much endorsement money SBW has knocked back as well.
Therein lie some of the reasons for the public frustration with SBW. Most people want guarantees, predictability and security with their contracts. For SBW having short contracts keeps things exciting for him, and always has him on his toes. A bad season and he can forget about getting a better deal for the next season. This makes him ‘different’ and some of the public react in kind.
Another common criticism is that SBW is not a ‘team player’. With this some people confuse the business of professional sport with the actual sport itself. The business of pro sport is a lot different to the actual pro sport. With respect to the business of sport issue the criticism is probably valid. Then again that is just the nature of the beast.
With respect to the functionality of the actual team, this criticism is way off. SBW started his New Zealand rugby at a club called Belfast in Christchurch. In Oct 2010 rugby journalist Gregor Paul wrote on SBW’s time at Belfast.
“He was an inspiration to our boys,” says Belfast coach Don Fisher. “After he came, our boys turned things around and won four games. Sonny has been so supportive. He turned up to all the trainings, came to the team photograph and was even down at our touch night this week.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy who fitted in really well and if he does indeed win All Black selection, it will be by right, not because of the investment that was made in him.”
What Fisher doesn’t say is that Williams stood for an hour after his game for Belfast signing autographs. Everyone wanted a piece of him, and through it all, he smiled, scribbled and laughed.
He does the same after every game for Canterbury, and far from being a concern, Williams may in fact be the benchmark for All Blacks in terms of how they engage the public.
The stories of Williams as a humble sort, keen to keep his head down and be one of the boys, are consistent. He has said all the right things, done all that has been asked and more, and the perception of Williams believing his own hype is far removed from the reality.
My prediction is that SBW will be back at the Chiefs (if Wayne Smith is still there) in 2014 to try and make the starting All Black Rugby World Cup side for 2015, and then he will retire from both codes after the World Cup to concentrate full-time on boxing.
In the end time will tell whether those boxing ambitions will bear fruit. For his sake I hope they do, because he has knocked back a lot of money in order to give himself a shot.