SBW returns to NRL a better player - Cooper
Sonny Bill Williams will return to the NRL on Thursday night stronger, wiser and better than when he left in tumult five years ago.
That's the steadfast opinion of good friend and former rival Quade Cooper who believes six seasons of rugby union in three countries have equipped Williams with extra skills and smarts the Roosters can harness in 2013.
The former Bulldog and part-time boxer has played for five clubs and won a Rugby World Cup with the All Blacks since controversially walking out on Canterbury-Bankstown.
He finished his rugby stint as the best inside centre in the world, taking the midfield off-loading game to a new level.
But while it took Williams until last year to fully adapt and become the complete package as a game-breaking centre, Cooper has little doubt he'll slip straight back into gear in the 13-man game.
"Something that comes natural to him is playing rugby league," said Wallabies five eighth Cooper, an avid student of the NRL.
"Rugby league has been his first choice of sport for many years.
"To see him go back to rugby league is quite exciting.
"I know a lot of people will want him to come back and fail but that's not in his make-up."
Vilified in Sydney for turning his back on the Bulldogs and taking the riches on offer in French rugby with Toulon, Williams returns as a much-hyped superstar in one of the code's most eagerly-anticipated season-openers in memory.
After surviving a controversial boxing bout last month and rehabbing from pectoral surgery, the 27-year-old will come off the bench for the Roosters against arch-enemies Souths at a packed Allianz Stadium.
His agent Khoder Nasser this week revealed he wished Williams had stayed in rugby union, where he was capped 19 times for New Zealand and also earned massive contracts in France and Japan.
Nasser also admonished the Bulldogs for "misusing and abusing" him by playing the gifted 194cm and 108kg powerhouse as a "battering ram".
"They had a Ferrari in the garage and they drove him like a Mack truck," Nasser told the Weekend Australian.
As a rugby union centre, Williams made most impact for the Waikato-based Chiefs last year, playing a pivotal role outside rising Test five-eighth Aaron Cruden, to help them to the Super Rugby title.
He regularly ran over the top of opponents, but it was more his off-loading in the tackle - also a feature of his time with the Bulldogs - which most defied tight defensive lines.
Cooper felt dual international Williams' improved skills and football maturity, combined with his size, would be just as well utilised on the edge of the ruck in the NRL.
"If you look at the skill set he's developed while he's been away playing rugby and what sort of athlete he is now, he can play a power game and he's very fast and quite nimble on his feet as well," Cooper said.
"I think he would be best used out on the fringes where he can get a few one-on-one opportunities.
"He's always going to draw in two or three defenders so he's going to be able to put people away in space.
"Being able to go to the line and pass the ball, even just before contact, adding that to his game has been great for him and he'll just get better and better as the season goes on."
Despite his controversial departure from Canterbury in mid-season, Cooper describes Williams as a man of high morals and a loyal and supportive friend.
The Kiwi-born Cooper, 24, endured a terrible 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign for the Wallabies in New Zealand when he failed to cope with the pressure as a self-described "public enemy No.1".
But he said Williams was regularly on the phone to encourage him despite being in the rival camp.
"To me he's always been like a big brother," he said.
"No matter what I've gone through he's always been there and stuck by my side.
"During the World Cup he was always the first guy to give me a call and catch up with me and it didn't matter that he was wearing the opposition's jumper. That's the sort of guy he is."
After signing a mere one-season contract with the Roosters, many expect SBW to cross codes again to play for the All Blacks at the 2015 RWC in England.
Cooper hasn't spoken to him about it but suspects another "scary prospect" is in the wings.