News broke yesterday of Sonny Bill Williams’ decision to further his career in Japan from where he will probably return to Rugby League following a short, but very lucrative stint in what seems to be becoming rugby’s equivalent to the IPL.
Williams made headlines all over the rugby playing world in 2010 when he was enticed to return to his country of birth, New Zealand, after playing for French club, Toulon, in what was reportedly the richest rugby contract in the world at the time. The move was completed with much fan-fare by the New Zealand Rugby Union where he not only returned to his native country for the Super Rugby competition of 2011 where he played for the Crusaders, but later ran out for the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup which they won.
He continued to make the headlines throughout this period with his powerful game, but perhaps even more through his ridiculous talent especially his off-loading in the tackle.
Such was his skill that prior to the Rugby World Cup, I wrote that Sonny Bill Williams could revolutionize the game of union similar (if not more) to the extent that icons like Jonah Lomu did in the mid to late nineties.
Of course he was not everybody’s cup of tea, his game was ridiculed by many including then Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, who famously said he is teaching young kids the wrong way of playing the game – this ironically from someone whose initial vision was to revolutionize the game in South Africa when he was appointed, but that is a story for another day.
Suddenly terms like doing a ‘Sonny Bill’ became the norm in rugby speak amongst supporters, players and the media – where not a game went by that you did not expect something spectacular from the man.
So when news came that Williams will leave New Zealand rugby and join the Japanese league for reportedly R1-million a game, I was surprised by the general reaction by the public who seemed to look beyond the magnificent talent and athlete that he is and immediately labeled him nothing more than a money-merchant, or that he will sell his soul and that of his mother for an extra buck.
I will be the first to acknowledge that his reputation does very little to go against this perception. In 2008 he left his Rugby League team, the Cantebury Bulldogs, in mid-season to take up his union contract with Toulon. And even after he joined Canterbury and New Zealand rugby all kinds of special dispensations were seemingly made for him where he was allowed to pursue his career as a professional boxer while being contracted to the New Zealand National side. But as much as it can be argued that he is a spoilt little brat only chasing money as if he is someone special, we have to acknowledge that he actually is someone very special, who through his skills and talent, is well within his right to chase top dollar in a career with a limited shelf-life.
As much as we seem to celebrate brilliant talent, we also want these athletes to display some kind of loyalty which in a professional sport is almost impossible.
I noticed exactly the same sort of sentiment displayed when young Western Province and Junior Springbok flyhalf, Handre Pollard, confirmed that he has signed with the Bulls. Where all of South Africa celebrated this young man’s talent and composure not even a week before in the Junior Rugby World Cup final, there were suddenly calls the drop him from the Western Province Craven Week team (of which he is the captain) because he ‘dared’ to sign with the arch-enemy, the Blue Bulls.
It is not to say that I do not feel dejected by the news of Sonny Bill Williams decision, because I do, but not for the fact that he will be playing rugby union in Japan from now on, but for the fact that such a brilliant talent is seemingly lost to the game of rugby union. At least I will still get to see young Handre develop into the superstar we all hope him to become – even if it is at the Bulls.