After arriving back in Sydney yesterday for the first time since walking out on his NRL contract last season, Sonny Bill Williams declared he would always be a Bulldog and issued a heartfelt apology to the club's supporters and his former team-mates for the way he departed.
Williams, who returned to Australia to prepare for his professional boxing debut next Wednesday night on the undercard of Anthony Mundine's middleweight world title bout with Daniel Geale after helping Toulon survive relegation in France's Top 14 rugby union competition, admitted he had braced himself for a hostile reception.
But those concerns started to ease not long after he and girlfriend Genna Shaw boarded the plane in Dubai for the final leg of their trip from Nice. Fellow passengers soon asked to pose for photos with him, and Williams received nothing but warm wishes from members of the public he encountered.
"I guess just hearing all the stories and the media reports, you tend to be a bit on edge, but it has been really good, a few people have come up to me and given me their best wishes and said I had done the right thing."
After going from Sydney Airport to Mundine's Hurstville Cafe, where he met his father John and brother John Arthur, along with other family members and friends, including injured Wests Tigers prop Keith Galloway, Williams was swamped by a group of local schoolgirls wanting to have their photos taken with him.
He met some more well-wishers as he visited a nearby barber shop and people also approached him at Sydney and Brisbane airports after he and Mundine flew to the Queensland capital later in the day.
But Williams knows that a lot of Bulldogs fans still have trouble coming to terms with his departure midway through the first season of a five-year contract, despite the 23-year-old Kiwis superstar eventually paying the club $750,000 to release him.
"One thing I want to do is to apologise to the Bulldogs fans, and especially the young kids that looked up to me," he said. "I just want to say that I'm sorry for the heartache and problems that I've caused.
"Even though I had to pay $750,000 to get out of my contract, I've got no animosity towards the Dogs. They will always be my team.
"I've got the Bulldogs tattooed on my arm and I still cherish the memories that I have of playing for the club. I had some really good times there, so I wish them all the best and I still go for them.
"I was unhappy with the way the club was run and the way I was treated but I played for them for so long that if you were to ask me who I was to go for, it would be the Dogs."
Williams also said he regretted not saying goodbye to his teammates before he left and still followed their fortunes in France, where one NRL game is televised each week.
"Last week it was the Bulldogs game against the Dragons, and I have to say that they were robbed in that game," he said. "But they have been going unreal this season and I'm really happy for the boys.
"If I had my time over again I would ring every single player in the team before I left.
"At the time, knowing what they were like and knowing how passionate they were about the club, I thought that they wouldn't understand, so it was better not to saying anything. But I know a lot of the boys were let down my actions."
After recently re-signing with Toulon for another season, Williams said he now considered himself a rugby union player but refused to rule out the possibility of a return to league in the future.
"I still love rugby league and I love watching it," he said. "It's a lot faster this season, with the second ref they seem to be able to monitor the ruck a lot more and the speed of the play the ball has picked up. I've especially noticed watching the Melbourne Storm, who were so good at slowing the ruck down, that they just can't any more."
- Sydney Morning Herald
Who are you tipping to win the NRL title this year?