Sonny Bill Williams braces for hostile reception
CHRIS BARCLAY IN SYDNEY
It was hardly the return of the prodigal son; more the black sheep of the family being embraced - despite forlorn demands that Sonny Bill Williams be ostracised from the NRL.
In probably the most elongated player signing announcement in Australian rugby league history, Williams was finally showcased by the Sydney Roosters yesterday - a development anticipated since he was photographed lunching with club chairman Nick Politis last New Year's Eve.
Williams will make his comeback to the code he sensationally deserted five years ago in round one of the 2013 season on March 7, fitness permitting.
The double international and New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion had his right arm in a sling - the legacy of surgery on a torn pectoral muscle suffered while playing in Japan - when he fronted a press conference alongside club officials.
Confident he will have recovered in time to join the Roosters pre-season in February after fighting South African Francois Botha, Williams acknowledged he would still be rolling with the punches.
Williams' return to the league fraternity after adding an ITM Cup, Super Rugby title and World Cup-winners' medal to his portfolio of achievements has not been greeted with universal acclaim.
Bulldogs fans are still incensed by Williams' fly-by-night departure for French club rugby as their team was struggling.
A curtain-raising blockbuster between the Roosters and Rabbitohs is designed to unleash the 27-year-old at the earliest opportunity, though it is the fixtures against the Bulldogs that will define his comeback.
There were suggestions Williams would not play the away game against his former club because the match presented the Bulldogs with a revenue-generating opportunity.
Williams would not confirm he would be available but presumably he will run the gauntlet.
"They'll probably come hunting for me," he mused.
"At this stage I haven't thought about it. I'm just [concentrating on] rehab and getting on the field first."
Bulldogs legend Hazem el Masri would be content if his former teammate didn't front at ANZ Stadium; indeed he urged the Australian Rugby League Commission to block Williams' return as punishment for fleeing Sydney for the south of France.
"I hated the way he left all his teammates behind and took off. We really needed him at that time. We were down and out and he just turned his back and went on us," he said, arguing against SBW's readmission.
"He's entitled to his opinion," countered Williams, who was reluctant to elaborate.
"If I start dwelling on the negatives I'll never sleep at night. That was one thing I was thinking about. Will I talk about it [the Bulldogs] or shouldn't I? There's a time and place for that and [yesterday] it's about signing for the Roosters."
Although abuse from the stands is inevitable, Williams said his priority was to ensure he stayed onside with his new teammates by making a smooth readjustment from an All Black midfield to the Bulldogs second row.
"I'd love to say I'll slide straight in and pick it up straight away but it's going to a tough challenge," he said.
"The biggest challenge will be the contact area. I was out wide kicking stones sometimes with the pretty boys in the backs.
"It'll be tough if I move back into the forwards, There's going to be some big boys running my way."
- © Fairfax NZ News