Sonny Bill Williams regrets nothing

'I am a rugby player, no one likes me in league'

BRAD WALTER
Last updated 07:39 01/12/2013
Sonny Bill Williams
SWPix/photosport.co.nz

NO REGRETS: Sonny Bill Williams turned his back on a return to NZ rugby for a crack at the Rugby League World Cup.

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No regrets. That has been Sonny Bill Williams' approach to this season with Sydney Roosters and to the World Cup, and will be the approach the dual-code superstar applies to whatever he chooses to do in coming seasons.

On the field, where he is now officially the game's best player after winning the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) player of the year award in Manchester on Wednesday night, and off it, where Williams' influence has been just as positive for the Roosters and Kiwis.

"If I hadn't come to this World Cup, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life," Williams said. "That is how I live my life now, that is how I make my decisions - am I going to look back and regret it when I am finished?"

Williams isn't just talking about his decision to make himself available for New Zealand just hours after the squad had been selected, a backflip that cost Melbourne rookie Tohu Harris his place and thrust him into another controversy just days after spearheading the Roosters to grand final victory.

The 28-year-old is also referring to his level of involvement in big matches - think the round-26 clash with South Sydney to decide the minor premiership, the NRL grand final and last weekend's World Cup semi-final - and the amount of work he puts in off the field to ensure he is able to step up when those type of games are on the line.

Fairfax Media spent two hours with a battered Williams at New Zealand's hotel the day after their last-gasp 20-18 defeat of England at Wembley and besides eating and talking his focus was on ensuring he would be at his best to face Australia in the final.

After a massage, Williams piled his plate with fish and broccoli for lunch before going to his room where a member of the Kiwis training staff had set up a Game Ready machine to ice and compress his lower legs. He set the machine for 25 minutes and lay on the bed while continuing our interview.

An ice pack was also pushed against his sternum and Williams said he had been up until 4.30am icing injuries from what he described as the toughest game he could remember playing.

"I want to do things that I know other players aren't prepared to do," Williams explained. "I want to stay up late [treating injuries], I want to stretch, I want to eat the right foods.

"I am not perfect, I want a release sometimes - like I want to eat junk food after games or I want to go out and see my mates - but I want to to be able to look back on my career and think I left no stone unturned."

Williams only needed to read the barrage of comments directed at him on Twitter about how Sam Burgess had got the better of him - despite the result - to be reminded that his ambitions aren't appreciated by everyone.

However, after his Kiwi teammates performed an impromptu haka for Williams at the RLIF dinner in honour of him winning the international player of the year award, the former All Black said he felt he'd finally regained respect from within the game after walking out on the Bulldogs in 2008.

While he has repeatedly said since announcing he was staying with the Roosters for next season that he has fallen in love with league again, the truth is Williams had initially felt when he returned this season that the game did not love him.

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"I thought I was just coming back for one year," Williams told Fairfax Media. "I thought 'I am a rugby player, no one likes me in league, I am the most hated man in league'. I was very disappointed in myself for the way I left - almost embarrassed.

"But I knew that I had a deal with [Roosters supremo] Nick Politis and I knew that the man that I was - or the man that was going back to league - if I just kept things simple and worked as hard as I could and tried to be as good a bloke as I could that that would show through, and thank God I have earnt a lot of respect this year.

"For me, this year was just about coming back, trying to show what kind of person I really was and earning my players' respect. That was a massive thing.

"It has been a dream come true, a blessing. I have been blessed to be not just given these gifts - the ability to play some pretty good footy - but to have achieved some pretty special things, especially this year."

Repeatedly throughout our conversation Williams requested this story not just be about him, as it was a great team effort for the Roosters to win the premiership and for Stephen Kearney's Kiwis to make the World Cup final.

He points out that New Zealand won the 2008 World Cup without him and says: "I am just blessed to be put into situations with great players and coaches."

But few will disagree that without Williams the Roosters would have been unlikely to come from behind to beat Manly in the grand final and the Kiwis would not have defeated England last weekend.

Williams won the Roosters player of the year award and New Zealand teammates voted him as their player's player last Saturday after a performance where he made 36 tackles and gained 150 metres from 19 runs with the ball, including three in the final minute.

"Sometimes I just feel that I need to get that ball in my hands," he said. "I might get smashed or I might get dominated but there is going to be that one time where I am going to do something good.

"I know that I have got to work my arse for my team and I have got to do those 1 per centers, and hopefully we will be in front, but when the pressure is on I want the ball, even when I am stuffed like I was against England. I'd rather do that than just sit back there as a passenger."

However, Williams readily admits he couldn't have played as he did in the NRL finals and the World Cup in the shape he was in at the start of the season. It was being outmuscled by Rabbitohs hooker Issac Luke that made him realise he needed to get stronger.

In the five years he'd been in rugby union, Williams had played in the backs and he had been more focused on developing skills than physical strength. So, on his return to league, he set about working harder in the gym and can now play like a prop when needed or a halfback.

Combining what he learnt in both codes with the mental strength needed to fight former world heavyweight champion Francois Botha after just five professional bouts has made Williams the complete player.

He also believes that enduring a season of injuries and self doubt in France after leaving Canterbury, and being introduced to Islam through a Tunisian family in Toulon has helped to shape him.

"Before I became a Muslim I was at the crossroads," he said. "In 2009, in France, I was injured almost the whole year and that was the hardest time in my sporting life, I reckon, because I wasn't sure if I could play the game.

"Then to hear Jonny Wilkinson, one of the best fly-halfs that has ever played, come out and say I was one of the best players he has played with gave me confidence and that is when I said 'what have I got to lose?' So I went back to New Zealand looking for respect and I feel like I ended up getting it.

"That has given me that will and drive to succeed, and Islam has played a big part in that. Just the way we are meant to live has helped, too, because anything bad for you is haram [forbidden] and everything that is good for you is halal [permissible].

"It is as simple as that; it is a simple religion. People like to put all of these twists and turns on it, but at the end of the day, it makes me happy and that is all I care about."

Despite the impact the World Cup has had on him, Williams still intends to switch codes in 2015 to try and force his way into the All Blacks team for the Rugby World Cup and the New Zealand Sevens team for the 2016 Olympics.

While that didn't preclude him from winning the RLIF award - as he believed it would after he was snubbed for even a positional award by this season's Dally M judges - Williams knows that not everyone will be accepting, but he feels he has earned the right to make such decisions.

"I feel that if I am busting my arse, if I am stretching at night, if I am working hard in the gym, if am doing all of my extras out on the field, if I am the first one there and the last to leave or whatever, and if I am giving my all every game, then I deserve to be the man I want to be rather than the man other people want me to be," he said.

"In 20 years time, I want to say 'didn't I have a go when I was in my prime', and I went back to play rugby league, tried to make the Rugby World Cup, tried to make the Olympics or tried to win the World Cup with the Kiwis."

No regrets.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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