Sonny Bill Williams is on a magical journey to sports immortality
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New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams celebrates after scoring a try against Ireland(AP Photo/SNPA, John Cowpland)
One of the wonderful things about sport is that every so often we get an athlete who is so good at what he does that he re-writes the book on what it means to be a champion. Sonny Bill Williams is one of those athletes.
He is on a magical journey to sports immortality. Let’s put away the mundane rows about the merits of one rugby code over another.
Let’s also look beyond the affronts that he and his manager have inflicted on the notion of the sanctity of binding contracts with employees and lock ourselves into the thrills and spills of this journey.
From the point of view of an athlete who believes in his own special capacities what Sonny Bill is doing makes a lot of sense. It also makes financial sense, too. And let’s remember, athletes have a short career in terms of the normal working life of mere mortals. Sonny Bill is already 26.
At the most he has about 10 more years in which to convert his special athletic qualities and abilities into money and triumphs on the rugby fields of the field and, possibly, the boxing rings of the world.
Going to Japan to play 12 matches for $1.2 million dollars is a win-win for him, for the Panasonic Wild Knights franchise and for rugby generally in Japan. Japan is aiming at becoming an Asian rugby powerhouse. The Rugby World Cup will be played there in 2019.
Having Sonny Bill playing in Japan in 2012/2013 will elevate the image of the game, especially to young people there, to a sort of celebrity cult status. Like Jonah Lomu, the first modern world-wide rugby superstar, Williams has that special charisma that attracts young people and with this celebrity, the attraction of the media.
And like Jonah, too, on his best days Williams delivers. Before his break with the rugby league code, The Daily Telegraph was given to describing him as the best league player in the world and one of the best to ever have graced the field playing the code. There was a justifiable reaction against the way he covertly broke his contract with the Bulldogs.
But it needs to be realised and accepted that in his dealings with the organisation the NZRU has said repeatedly that he and his manager have been models of probity and reliability. They have bargained hard and fair. And, as with rugby league where he won a Premiership, Sonny Bill has delivered.
But I have no doubt that when he comes back to Sydney and plays for the Roosters, it will be a case of ‘all is forgiven’ from the journalists who formerly (and correctly, I suppose) were bitter in their criticism of his contract-breaking behaviour.
This has already started, in fact. Chris Rattue, the rugby league tragic and columnist on the New Zealand Herald (who also writes absolute nonsense about rugby in New Zealand), wrote a piece today in which he describes Williams as a free spirit who is out to squeeze every ounce of the juice of life experiences from his sporting career.
This analysis of Sonny Bill makes sense to me. The life of the athlete reflects in its way the myth of Achilles.
Achilles was given the choice by the gods of a long, boring life or a short but brilliant existence. He chose the short but brilliant life. Athletes don’t really have a choice.
In the grand scheme of things their careers are short. And if they are touched by the gods, as Williams is, it can be brilliant, exciting and always challenging as well.
My guess is that after his year with the Roosters, Sonny Bill will come back to rugby in New Zealand to win back a place in the All Blacks for the 2015 RWC tournament in England.
The marketing possibilities for Sonny Bill in the iconic All Blacks colours in Europe before and after the tournament are mind-boggling.
Then presumably he will mix and match a rugby career in Europe (or Japan for 12 weeks in the year for a pay out of well over $1 million) with a renewed emphasis on a boxing career.
I have only seen clips of him as a boxer. He certainly has the physique and fitness and fast feet. At this stage he doesn’t appear to have the punch to match his build but this could come. He certainly seems to have more ring craft and technique than someone like Joe Bugner, for instance, who went the distance with Mohammed Ali.
Williams does all the right things in the ring. And what he needs, for someone who never boxed as a amateur even, is time in the ring to get the feel of ‘the sweet science’ that it becomes a natural instinct to him.
Knowing what he has achieved so far in his rugby (both codes) career and with his occasional fights in the ring, I would say that a world title is a long shot proposition for Sonny Bill. But this is only speculation on my part.
What we do know is that this season, particularly, Sonny Bill has progressed to the stage where he is one of the best rugby union players in the world. He has picked up the nuances of a difficult and intricate game brilliantly.
He is one of the few players in the history of rugby (Jonah Lomu is another) with his combination of bulk, power and pace as a winger rather than a loose forward, who has changed the perceptions of the game.
The Sonny Bill unloading of passes of tackles has added a new and exciting dimension to rugby attacking play.
Youngsters around the rugby union world are imitating it and the back-hand flick, the round-the-corner pass as the player falls to ground and the basket-ball overhead pass will become standard features of the rugby union game, thanks to Sonny Bill.
He would have been a long term All Black if he had stayed in the code. His progress from the talented player of last season who could only be trusted for a few seconds on the field in the final of RWC 2011 to the master blaster of this season for the Chiefs and the All Blacks has been phenomenal.
This could still happen. But for now it’s Sonny Bill the Rooster and heavyweight boxing contender. Bon voyage, Sonny Bill …
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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