Sonny Bill saga: Kiwis were damned either way

DAVID LONG
Last updated 05:00 10/10/2013
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They were damned if they did and damned if they didn't.

The NZRL were put in a difficult position when Sonny Bill Williams had a change of heart on Tuesday night and said he wanted to play for the Kiwis at the World Cup, because either way they were going to be criticised.

The talented 21-year-old Tohu Harris from the Storm had to be told he wouldn't be going to the World Cup, just 24 hours after being told he was and understandably, he was crushed at hearing the news.

But the bigger picture was that the Kiwis want to retain the World Cup and coach Stephen Kearney knew their chances of achieving that are greater with Williams than they are with Harris.

When Kearney landed in Brisbane from Auckland on Tuesday night, there was a call from Williams saying he wanted to go. From there the wheels were put in motion and some painful decisions had to be made.

"It has been a difficult time and for everyone involved it's been quite challenging, " NZRL CEO Phil Holden said yesterday.

"At the end of the day, whichever decision New Zealand Rugby League made there were going to be some people saying it was a great decision and others saying it wasn't.

"We are pretty focused on winning the World Cup, we think he [Williams] is an undeniable talent, not only with what he brings on the field, but also what he brings off it is really important in terms of the culture he'll have on the team environment."

Numerous calls were made between all of the relevant parties late into Tuesday night. First to find out if World Cup officials would allow the change after the squad had already been officially announced and then to go about the tricky situation of informing Harris.

"One of the key messages I gave to the coaches was that if we wanted Sonny Bill in the team, then we have to be prepared to front up and have a difficult conversation with a young man," Holden said. "There was never going to be any way of manufacturing taking Sonny up to the UK, so he had to be in the team on merit and selected on merit.

"The conversation was had with Tohu last night [Tuesday night], and again today [yesterday].

"He was offered the opportunity to come to the UK as part of a development experience and play in the Cook Islands fixture."

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That offer was rejected, with the Storm saying they wanted Harris to remain in Melbourne for the summer instead.

"As you would expect, I'm very disappointed not to be heading to the World Cup to represent my country, New Zealand," Harris said in a statement last night.

"I was very much looking forward to going, however I understand the decision that has been made and hope I get another opportunity to play for the Kiwis in the future.

"My focus will now be on returning to training with Storm in November for pre-season and looking forward to an exciting 2014," Harris said.

But there is a strong argument that Harris should have still gone and the NZRL shouldn't have allowed Williams to come in. Former Kiwis manager, Tony Kemp is one who thinks along those lines.

"Someone needs to be held accountable for this monumental stuff up," Kemp said.

"No one should ever be bigger than the game, and here is another credibility issue for rugby league purely based on the egos of a select few."

NZRL chairman Scott Carter doesn't believe this saga is a bad look for the organisation.

"The New Zealand Rugby League is very conscious of doing things properly.

"There have been appropriate communications all the way through and certainly the board is satisfied that the high performance team has gone about selecting the team in the appropriate way."

However, even with it all confirmed and Williams officially in the squad, the drama around him at the World Cup is unlikely to and here as controversy never seems to be too far away from him. 

DECISION DIVIDES NATION

Sonny Bill Williams' change of heart to make himself available has divided opinions around the country, as always seems be the case with the high profile duel international. A poll on Fairfax's Stuff.co.nz website had received 9340 votes by 6.30pm last night. Forty per cent of the those who voted felt Williams was too good to leave out, but 60 per cent said he shouldn't be allowed in the squad. 

- Fairfax Media

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