Love him or hate him, Sonny Bill Williams is back in the NRL bigger, better and more intimidating than ever.
What appeared to be the biggest gamble in recent NRL history has paid off massive dividends, as the Sydney Roosters, the club which signed him up for the beginning of his NRL comeback this season, now find themselves as one of the contenders to win this year’s premiership.
Already, Williams has proven a massive hit with the fans, as evidenced by his form throughout the first eight rounds of the season.
He has single-handedly turned the Roosters from a laughing stock into a tough, defensive unit through his play and ability to perform in big matches.
And the rules have changed during SBW’s time away from the NRL.
The shoulder charge has since been banned, and the question would be how he would adjust to this new rule, given it was a feature of his game while he was at the Bulldogs.
Additionally, the Australian Rugby League Commission has since been established, and David Gallop is no longer the CEO, having moved to Football Federation Australia to serve in the same role.
But he has adjusted to that new rule well, and bases his game nowadays through his tough and unrelenting defence, as well as his setting up of tries, both of which the Roosters have excelled in this season.
Williams isn’t the only man that is luring crowds back to Roosters matches this season. James Maloney, Luke O’Donnell and Michael Jennings, as well as new coach Trent Robinson, are playing their parts in a side that looks to be building towards something special this season after a couple of lean years in the bottom half of the competition.
Fans, though, should remember that this is the same Sonny Bill Williams who committed the biggest act of betrayal not just in rugby league, but probably in Australian sporting history.
Back in 2008, Williams signed a five-year contract with the Bulldogs, by the end of which he would have been one of the highest-paid players at the club, only to suddenly sneak out the back door and board a plane to France without anybody but himself knowing.
He signed on to play rugby union for Toulouse in France, which was to be the first step towards achieving his dream of winning a World Cup with the All Blacks, which they would do in 2011.
The NRL tried to do everything they could to their powers to stop him playing outside the conditions of his contract at the Bulldogs, to no avail.
The question that was asked at the time, not by Bulldogs supporters, but also fans of the other remaining clubs, was whether he should be allowed back into the NRL, or whether he would ever make it back.
For Bulldogs supporters, there would have been one straight answer to that question: a straight no. To this day, the fans still feel betrayed by what he did on that July morning in 2008, and will probably never welcome him back to the club.
Williams’ betrayal was one of the many issues that David Gallop had to deal with during his decade-long reign as the NRL’s chief executive officer, and one of many involving the Bulldogs.
In 2002, the club was hit with a $500,000 fine for tampering the NRL’s salary cap, and thus were stripped of 37 competition points and sentenced to finish that season last, when a premiership looked a mere formality.
Just two years later, the same club found themselves in the centre of sexual assault allegations involving a woman at Coffs Harbour. The club was making headlines for all the wrong reasons off the field, but were doing so for all the right reasons on the field, as they went on to win the premiership that year.
Then there was the aforementioned Sonny Bill Williams act of betrayal in 2008, the Brett Stewart sexual assault saga of 2009 (of which he was later exonerated) and the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal of 2010.
Back now to the main subject. As previously mentioned, Williams’ escape act to France would end up being the first steps towards achieving his dreams of excelling in rugby union.
He would star for the Crusaders in the Super Rugby competition in 2011, and went on to feature in the All Blacks side that would eventually win the World Cup that year. One year later, Williams would feature in the Chiefs’ team that would win the Super Rugby rugby title that year, after which questions started surrounding his future, as the final year of his ban from playing in the NRL loomed.
There was one club that was always going to lure him back, and that was the Sydney Roosters. The Roosters had previously had a habit of luring players from the Bulldogs, namely Braith Anasta, Nate Myles, Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley.
This led to the Bulldogs releasing a t-shirt claiming that their players were “bred, not bought”, in the lead-up to a match in 2008.
I made a prediction, ironically in 2008, that SBW would be the next Bulldog that the Roosters would try to lure to their club, and although it had taken five years, I wound up being correct.
Williams had only agreed to join the Roosters by virtue of a handshake agreement made with one of the most powerful administrators in the game, Nick Politis. This agreement was made when he deserted the Bulldogs in 2008.
That honour would be made when his five-year ban from the NRL expired at the end of 2012.
His comeback to the NRL hit a few hurdles along the way, one of which was a pectoral injury he suffered while boxing professionally during the off-season. This led to questions surrounding whether he would be available for the beginning of the season.
Eventually, his injury healed, clearing the way him to take his place in the Roosters’ team to take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the first round of this year’s premiership.
Questions were always going to be asked about how he would suit back into the sport that made him a superstar back in 2004. The rules have since changed and the game has also since revolutionised with the new Australian Rugby League Independent Commission being established early last year.
And despite a rusty first match back, in which he was flattened by Sam Burgess after coming off the bench, Williams has re-established himself as the NRL player that many opposition teams feared.
In Round 4 against the Parramatta Eels, he was unstoppable as he played a part in the Roosters’ 50-0 thrashing of the westerners. And from there he has just gotten better and better.
His first match against the team that he deserted back in 2008 two rounds later was building up as one of the grudge matches of the season. The Bulldogs had, last year, proven that they had moved on from the Williams betrayal and made the grand final.
However, Williams would produce one of his best performances for the Roosters yet, as he featured heavily in his new club’s pummelling of the then under-siege Bulldogs side (which has since recovered and won two matches in a row).
And finally, on ANZAC Day last month, Williams was once again instrumental as the Roosters thrashed the Dragons in style.
Already, Williams has played in some massive matches for the Roosters this season, and has played a role in every win the team have had.
The challenge now will be whether he can keep up this form for the rest of the season, as the Roosters seek their first premiership since 2002.
There is no reason why Sonny Bill Williams and the Sydney Roosters cannot go all the way this season. They are in the top four of the NRL ladder, and are starting to play like premiership contenders after two years out of the finals.
They have barely been challenged (apart from losses to the Rabbitohs and the Raiders), and have taken their game to yet another level.
There is a lot to like for Roosters fans this season, though the middle part of the season may test their premiership credentials, especially with State of Origin looming. The spotlight will be on Williams during this period, as Mitchell Pearce and (possibly) James Maloney will be away on Blue duty as they try to stop the Origin shield heading north for an eighth consecutive year.
Williams will most likely return to rugby union in 2015, as the All Blacks look to defend their World Cup trophy.
The day he leaves will probably be another sad day in rugby league, given how phenomenal he has been for the Roosters this season.