Divided loyalties haunt Sonny Bill Williams

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 26/08/2012
Sonny Bill Williams
John Selkirk/Fairfax NZ
SAD FAREWELL: Sonny Bill Williams ponders life after New Zealand rugby.

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Only now, as he exits rugby too soon, does Sonny Bill Williams truly appreciate his achievements and the sense of nationalism evoked by the All Blacks.

Williams' exterior persona - his business-driven attitude to sport - can be misleading. His emotional demeanour this past week portrayed an unseen side to the man mountain.

It seems he will genuinely miss the ultimate spotlight in New Zealand sport - the privileged place the All Blacks command.

It was clear his final farewell from New Zealand rugby last night hit a nerve. This chapter closed with more than a tinge of sadness.

Williams realised his infinite union potential remains unfulfilled - he leaves without discovering the peak of his powers.

“I wish I could say ‘nah, I'll stay',” he said.

“It is pretty emotional. A lot of people are hitting me up, asking why I'm leaving, but three years ago I didn't even know if I could play rugby. It was good to have the security of knowing in three years' time I had a job in rugby league.”

The powerful midfielder has made giant strides in two short years here.

After a stint in France with Tana Umaga, Canterbury supplied the initial grounding. They taught Williams much about rugby's rich history in this county.

But it was during this year's remarkable Super Rugby title-winning campaign with the Chiefs, and under the guidance of Wayne Smith, where lasting friendships were formed.

Williams finally felt comfortable - at home. He then embraced and, indeed, flourished in the 15-man code many suspected he would never master.

“I felt like I found my home down in Hamilton, just outside of Auckland and not far from my family. I was really enjoying my rugby,” he reflected in a rare, candid moment.

Love or loathe him, no-one can deny Williams' unique talents. It is, for that reason, surprising his fast-tracked elevation made him feel out of place, even unworthy of the black jersey, at first.

“When I first came into the All Blacks squad I definitely felt like I didn't belong here. Straight from the NPC, I felt like I was out of my depth. I was still improving as a rugby player,” he said.

“After being involved for 20 tests you really appreciate what you have. Now I understand rugby I've got the utmost respect for the game.”

For many, the 27-year-old leaves short of creating a fitting legacy, although there is a growing understanding such decisions are for him and his manager Khoder Nasser to make.

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Don't hold your breath on a return. Williams' future involves Japanese rugby, Australian league and boxing in South Africa, for now. He can, however, leave in the knowledge perceptions have altered somewhat.

Depending on last night's result against the Wallabies, Williams could have helped secure the Ranfurly Shield, Super Rugby, NPC, World Cup and Bledisloe Cup titles.

Those are boxes few get to tick in significantly longer careers.

“I don't like tackling him,” Wallabies halfback Will Genia said, clearly glad to see the back of Williams.

“He's achieved a hell of a lot in a short space of time in the All Black jersey and with the Chiefs this year.”

So sayonara, Sonny. That bag of trophies, true rugby education and fond memories are testament to your sporting prowess.

Most importantly, though, you leave with greater respect than when you arrived.

In a rugby context, you achieved undeniable success, but not greatness the fairytale had mapped out.

Loyalty is the only concept you are yet to grasp.

- Sunday Star Times

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