SPIRO: SBW is really chasing world title boxing glory

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Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan "Hulk" Hogan. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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What do you make of a supremely gifted athlete who changes rugby codes just when he is establishing a legacy for the ages? That is the case of Sonny Bill Williams.

And adding to the puzzle is the fact that when you try to work out what the plan behind the changes involves, you come to the conclusion that there is another sport in which he is really trying to establish the SBW legacy.

In my opinion, that sport is boxing. The key to understanding what he is doing with his sporting career is that its real direction is the World Heavyweight Boxing title.

Not long into SBW’s rugby league career The Daily Telegraph, the hoarse voice of the code, proclaimed him as potentially one of the greatest ever players of ‘the greatest game of all’.

Then SBW made his treacherous or brave (depending on your views about the sanctity of sports contracts) bolt from rugby league to rugby union in France.

Early indications suggested that SBW had made a mistake in making the leap of faith. In rugby league he played as a ball-handling and running forward. There was no way he could play this role in rugby union, although Brad Thorn who made the leap from league to union created a stellar career for himself as a Crusaders and All Blacks lock.

In his early days, too, SBW found that the strange league perception (which Phil Gould still maintains!) that there is no tackling in union was arrant nonsense. Stirling Mortlock memorably put SBW on his backside in his first major rugby union match playing for the Barbarians against the Wallabies.

It was not really until SBW came into the Crusaders’ environment that his rugby, as an inside centre, began to flourish.

Because he was big and strong and had enormous hands and upper body strength, SBW developed an off-loading game that has revolutionised the way rugby attacks are being made.

But even in 2011, and during the Rugby World Cup tournament, SBW was still behind Ma’a Nonu as the All Blacks first choice as an inside centre. It was noticeable, too, that he was played more on the wing than in the centres for the All Blacks.

And in the tense Rugby World Cup final against France, he came on with minutes left to play, and on the wing.

But this year for the rampant championship Chiefs and for the All Blacks, SBW emerged as a genuine rugby union star, and a potential great of the game.

But as he did with rugby league, at the time when he should have been creating his legacy for the ages, he moved on. First he played in Japan, a rugby union giant against minions. And then next year back to rugby league with the Roosters. But only for a year.

In 2014 he will probably return to the Chiefs, after another stint, perhaps, in Japan.

Then after the Rugby World Cup 2015 tournament in England, he might play some more in Japan or Europe.

But it will be boxing that will take over as his primary sporting interest.

A cynic could read the SBW shifts from code to code and from country to country as merely part of a manager-led dash for cash. But this does not explain the big cut in his income he will receive from playing for the Roosters.

SBW reckons that he made a handshake agreement with Nick Politis, three years ago when he left rugby league, that Politis would take him back into rugby league, no matter how he fared in rugby union. This is the sort of fall-back option which SBW honoured that was available in a way, as well, to Israel Folau.

But the old cynic in me (it is the journalist streak) also sees a boxing advantage in the Japan and Roosters deals. SBW has Europe and Japan, through his All Blacks connections, as places where he will draw big crowds for his boxing matches.

And through Super Rugby he has New Zealand, South Africa and possibly Australia as venues for his boxing matches. I said ‘possibly’ because the Bulldogs stigma needs to be wiped out.

And it is more that likely that this is going to happen when SBW strips off next year for the Roosters.

Bob Jones, a New Zealand property multi-millionaire, has a passion and a deep knowledge about boxing. He reckons that SBW won’t make it as a boxer. This may be sour grapes on Bob’s part, though, as he has his own New Zealand heavyweight contender.

So far the jury is out on SBW as a boxer. He hasn’t had to take a real punch on the jaw. He has fought over-weight palookas.

He does have a magnificent physique or ‘build’ as they say in New York gyms. He doesn’t seem to have a massive punch, at least at this stage in his short career.

So the jury is out until he starts to fight and beat some fighters who are more than convenient punching bags.

There is, however, some history on his side. Gene Tunney’s last defence of the world heavyweight boxing title he won from Jack Dempsey was against Tom Heeney, ‘The Hard Rock From DownUnder’.

Heeney was a New Zealand Heavyweight Boxing Champion like SBW, and a rugby player who played against the 1921 Springboks.

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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