8 Nov 2019

SBW will be great role model and ambassador in his new gig

12:35 pm on 8 November 2019

By Hamish Bidwell

Opinion - Well done to Sonny Bill Williams on becoming rugby league's $10 million man. The Toronto Wolfpack have pulled off a clever bit of business in signing the former All Black to their fledgling Super League franchise.

All Black midfielder Sonny Bill Williams.

Sonny Bill Williams is turning a slightly underwhelming rugby career into a lucrative rugby league swansong, Hamish Bidwell writes. Photo: Photosport

If the rumoured fine print is true, Williams is set to get a financial stake in the Wolfpack, as well as his healthy wage, and star in some sort of Netflix reality show. It's good work if you can get it, especially when you're turning 35 next birthday.

Williams will be great for the Wolfpack. He's a model professional and genuine leader, with a good understanding of how the business of sport works.

You doubt he'll play a heck of a lot, but he'll be a fine ambassador for Super League as a whole and great role model for his team-mates.

Favourites are few and far between in this job. The more games you have to cover, the fewer you find you can stomach. Turning on the television just feels like more work when you've spent the week at press conferences and training sessions and re-hashing every minute piece of last week's match.

The more time you spend around athletes, the less fond you can become of them too. The difference between their life and yours becomes increasingly stark and there's a natural resentment that can creep in.

You're aware of the public face - heck, you spend half your working life promoting it - while realising that the actual man's maybe not as amazing as the myth. The fact you're viewed as a parasite yourself hardly helps either.

That said, Sonny Bill Williams would easily rank among my all-time favourite rugby league players. Few forwards have ever boasted quite the same package of power, pace, looks and skill.

Williams was made for rugby league and, on the occasions when his body was in one piece, played at a level that only the greats can attain.

He won't be remembered quite so reverentially in rugby, though. For starters, he just didn't play that much. He was forever injured or recovering from surgery. Even when he was fit, his minutes were controlled or he was cast in the role of impact player.

There was his ill-fated attempt to play sevens, a couple of seasons back playing rugby league, and then not a lot else.

Sonny Bill Williams leaves the field injured at the Rio Olympics.

Sonny Bill Williams leaves the field after being injured playing for the New Zealand sevens side at the Rio Olympics. The injury put SBW out of the tournament. Photo: Photosport

You assumed there must be a good player in there somewhere, and certainly saw glimpses of one, but it was all too brief. Despite a decade in the sport, he continued to look like a rugby league player still learning the rugby ropes.

There was also some hugely unnecessary stuff at times, such as the bank logo on the shirt collar business. No-one minded Williams' objection to the BNZ branding, just that he decided make a meal of it rather than come to a quiet compromise months in advance.

More often that not, though, Williams and his Muslim faith were a force for good. He put a relatable and admired face to a religion many didn't, or still don't, understand and showed an empathy for others that you couldn't help but appreciate.

Sonny Bill Williams visits Muslim children from the Canterbury Resilience Foundation

Sonny Bill Williams meets a child during an event in Christchurch for Muslim children connected to the Canterbury Resilience Foundation. Photo: Katie Todd

And his team-mates loved him. My word they did. Once the guy whose poster had been on their bedroom wall, now here he was training and playing with them and telling tales from his storied career.

He had charisma and could laugh at himself but best of all, like fellow rugby league convert Brad Thorn before him, Williams' preparation and recovery were an example to all. When the best, or most famous, player in the team is doing everything right, it's hard for everyone else not to follow.

It's just that there weren't really the playing highlights to match. It's easy to recall the runs and the offloads and the shoulder charges from Williams' rugby league career, but the rugby ones are less plentiful.

There was a period at the Chiefs, before he went back to league with the Sydney Roosters, where Williams looked like the union player many hoped he might, but that couldn't be sustained.

That's okay. It's not a stain on his reputation or anything like that. In fact you kind of admire Williams for being able to turn a slightly underwhelming rugby career into such a lucrative rugby league swansong.

It speaks to what a significant figure he's become, as much as a significant sportsman.

We probably won't mention Williams in quite the same breath as fellow All Blacks retirees Kieran Read, Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty, but we'll definitely remember him and continue to admire the way he unites people and promotes the Muslim faith.

The All Blacks talk of leaving the jersey better than you find it and while Williams won't go down as one of New Zealand rugby's greats, he's appeared to help make the team a more tolerant, inclusive and professional place.

That's not a bad legacy at all.

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