Sonny Bill's return to league a challenge
For a player who grew accustomed to making the right moves on a rugby field, Sonny Bill Williams did not exactly follow the game plan while confirming his return to the NRL today.
League stars returning to their sporting grassroots after being seduced by rugby union are generally critical of their experience with the Wallabies, but Williams broke with convention when he was unveiled as the Sydney Roosters' marquee player for 2013.
Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers, Lote Tuqiri and Timana Tahu paid penance by regretting their switch when welcomed back to the league fold, but Williams, a World Cup-winning All Black, intimated he would probably still be playing in New Zealand had he not honoured a handshake deal made with Roosters chairman Nick Politis three years ago.
Williams, whose one-year deal suggests he could return to rugby and challenge for a place in the squad tasked with defending the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2015, admitted it had been a difficult decision to turn his back on the All Blacks and Chiefs.
When the 27-year-old was asked if he was back with his “true love” rugby league, Williams' response was not quite what a league devotee wanted to hear.
“Pardon me? I guess I wouldn’t call it that because I’ve grown to love rugby union. I’ve been pretty successful,” he said, while flanked by Roosters officials at a press conference.
“A lot of great things have happened to me (since the handshake). Going back to New Zealand, winning the ITM Cup, the World Cup with the All Blacks, Super Rugby with the Chiefs…
“If I’m honest with myself, I admit it was pretty tough to honour what me and Nick have agreed.’’
Williams was non-committal when asked if he would be back playing league for the first time since his sensational abandonment of the Bulldogs in 2008 had it not been for his loyalty to Politis.
“I’m not too sure. I still watch a bit of rugby league, but the (rugby) environments I was in, I was really loving it. All I can say is I was really enjoying what I was doing.”
Fortunately for Roosters supporters concerned that Williams will only be a short-term solution to the club’s fortunes, he said he would be totally focused on the Roosters once he recovered from a pectoral injury, completed his commitments with Japanese rugby club Panasonic Wild Knights and then continued his boxing career with a rescheduled heavyweight bout against South African Francois Botha in February.
He joins the Roosters that month, with a minimal pre-season behind him, but was hopeful of a smooth transition from an All Black midfield to the Bulldogs second row.
“Wherever I go I’ll be giving it 100 per cent,” he said.
“There’s always a lot of stuff going on outside of the field with me, but I know what I need to do to perform. I said to him (Roosters head coach Trent Robinson): ‘You’ll be getting a player that’s willing to learn, I’ll work as hard as I can, just like anyone else.”
Williams expects to have his right arm in a sling for at least another fortnight as he rehabs a pectoral muscle tear sustained when playing in Japan last month, but he was confident of being available for the NRL’s season-opening clash between the Roosters and South Sydney on March 7.
His comeback match obviously will be heavily scrutinised, though the Roosters fixtures against the Bulldogs – the schedule for the 2013 premiership is due to be released this week – will be the true focal point of the dual international's second coming.
The majority of Bulldogs fans are still angered by his shock departure from Belmore midway through the 2008 season for French rugby club side Toulon and former teammates also remain bitter at the manner of his exit.
Bulldogs legend Hazem el Masri fuelled what is already guaranteed to be an incendiary atmosphere when the cross-town rivals meet by insisting Williams should not be allowed to return.
Williams respected El Masri’s view but would not comment further, or issue an apology in an attempt to placate Bulldogs fans.
“He’s entitled to his opinion. I guess that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
“Today is about me signing with the Roosters and that’s what I’m going to stick to.”
Although Williams has signed the document, it is still to be rubberstamped by the Australian Rugby League Commission, but the Roosters chief operating officer (football) Brian Canavan did not anticipate any problems when the paperwork was forwarded on today.
Williams’ manager Khoder Nasser is not an accredited agent with the ARLC but the Roosters cleared that obstacle by using lawyer Stephen Gorry during the negotiation process.