He's got his fair share of detractors on both sides of the Tasman for his approach to professional sport and which code he plays for, but Sonny Bill Williams has got one unlikely man in his corner: new Warriors coach Matt Elliott.
Never far from the media limelight since his NRL debut for the Bulldogs in 2004, the former All Black hit the headlines yet again last week when he inked his much-anticipated one-year contract with Sydney glamour club the Roosters.
It marks a controversial return to rugby league after Williams walked out on a five-year contract with the Bulldogs in 2008 to play rugby - and one that has been met with its expected flak in Australia media.
Elliott doesn't buy the hype. Asked about his thoughts on the whole situation, the former Panthers and Raiders boss spoke passionately about how the rugby league world needs to "give SBW a break". Elliott believes that rather than attacking Williams' moral credibility, they should look at the reasons that forced him to leave in the first place; namely, how much NRL players were getting paid and what he deserves.
"People just need to get over it," Elliott told the Sunday Star-Times. "We need to celebrate the fact that this guy is coming back to the game. I don't know if I've got a popular view of it, but mine's a realistic view. Athletes in America don't get paid a million dollars a year. They don't get paid $5 million a year. Some guys get paid $37 million a year.
"These guys have a short career and what they do on the weekend - some people actually have to have a closer look. If we paid them what they deserved, we wouldn't even have this as an issue."
Elliott points out the top league players in Australia get paid far less than the top Aussie rules, football and cricket players, despite the popularity of the NRL.
Rabbitohs fullback Greg Inglis is the best-paid player in the NRL, receiving A$700,000 a year. Star footballer Alessandro del Piero made A$1m a year for two years from Sydney FC and last year four AFL players made between A$900,000 and A$1m.
Elliott acknowledged the recently brokered broadcasting deal - due to increase the salary cap to A$5m next year - will improve wages, but believes salaries still must increase.
"In Australia, AFL players get paid 30% more than rugby league players, [but] rugby league is the highest rating sport in Australia," he said.
"Cricket players are in a different stratosphere. I know they're telecast internationally but our highest-paid player is not paid anywhere near what our highest paid soccer player in Australia is. I get where people are coming from, that these guys shouldn't be greedy and they should feel blessed to do what you do.
"I'm around these guys every day and they do feel blessed. Maybe Sonny Bill's execution of his original decision wasn't great . . . [but] it was a $2m choice. Let's just leave these guys alone, and pay them what they deserve."
In addition to media criticism, a number of former players have been scathing of Williams' return with former team-mate Hazem El Masri stating "if that was up to me, I wouldn't let him back in the game". Elliott is disappointed with the comments, defending Williams' actions as those which happen when faced by non-sportsmen, without judgment.
"Past players coming out and making comment on it - they buy into all the commentary rather than the reality of it," he said.
"Ninety-nine pe cent of people faced with the same decision are going to make the same choice. I wish I was Sonny Bill - I would love to be dealing with the issues he is dealing with. It seems to me that as he has matured he's handling that sort of stuff even better, as we all do. It's unreal seeing him in a rugby league jersey again."
The NRL 2013 schedule is due to be released this week, and the Sunday Star-Times understands it will feature a match-up between the Warriors and Roosters at Eden Park as early as the second round.
Williams' played his last game of league in New Zealand in April 2008, when the Bulldogs lost 36-16 to the Warriors at Mt Smart.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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