New Zealanders are still not sure about Sonny Bill Williams. Mention his name and, immediately, you are guaranteed a reaction – he polarises opinion like no other All Black or any other sportsman in this part of the world.
To the youngsters in the melting pot that is now Auckland he is a huge role model – a true superstar. But you get the feeling he will never win over the good old-fashioned Kiwi rugby fans. To them, even after all he has achieved, he is an opportunist, a guy who chases the big bucks and shows little loyalty. They want more commitment to the jersey, more commitment to the silver fern.
It all blew up yet again when he asked for (and was granted) permission to change the Bank of New Zealand logo on his Blues jersey because he is a devout Muslim and banking constitutes usury – the charging of interest on lent money – which is forbidden.
The dyed in the wool All Black supporter sees that as almost unpatriotic – who better to sponsor the national team than the national bank? They also find it difficult to square with his code hopping and club hopping over the years.
It all began when he signed as the youngest ever player with Canterbury Bulldogs Rugby League team in Sydney but, suddenly, mid-season in 2008 he was offered what was reputed to be the biggest deal ever in Rugby Union to go to France and play for Toulouse.
He was back in New Zealand in 2010 on an NZRU contract so he could play in the World Cup in 2011. Having won that he was off again almost immediately to play club rugby in Japan – another record deal, then it was back to Rugby League to join the Sydney Roosters before returning to take up another NZRU contract which qualified him to play in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Having won that (he is part of a 20 strong elite who have won two World Cups) he decided he wanted to be an Olympian so joined the Sevens programme and duly made the team for Rio. The dream of Olympic gold was dashed for him personally (and probably the team) when he ruptured an Achilles tendon in the first match, an injury that took six months to heal. That was followed by concussion, which means you can count his games this season on the fingers of one hand, but now he is favourite to be selected at No.12 for the first Test.
And, by the way, while playing all that rugby he still found time to pursue an intermittent but very successful professional boxing career. He has had seven heavyweight bouts and seven wins – three of them knock-outs – at a fairly high level. When he finally finishes rugby he says he will start to take boxing seriously.
It is an astonishing record but still many New Zealanders still do not quite trust him. Before that superlative performance against the Lions last Wednesday most people here were saying he might make the bench but you sensed most of them felt he should be left out. Many would preface their remarks with, ‘I’m not a fan’.
Afterwards it had switched to ‘I’m not a fan but I have to admit he’s still a great player’. Jeff Wilson and Sir John Kirwan, now the television anchormen for rugby over here were certainly convinced. “He’s done it again,” said Kirwan. “He has to be in the starting line-up!”
He has a very special talent as he proved again last week. That final try was the crowning glory but he had been a massive threat all the way through. The way he is always looking to offload in the tackle is seen by some as a bit of a flashy gamble – no way, he is always in total control of the ball. For him it is a potent attacking weapon.
The timing and the accuracy are skills he brought from League to Union and which he has turned into an art form. It is never enough to simply stop him – you have to stop him getting the ball away too. It was something Warren Gatland acknowledged in the post match analysis, criticising the Lions’ tacklers for going too low thus allowing him use of his tremendous upper body strength to get the pass away to support runners who know it is worth coming from deep to run off his shoulder.
Defence gets ever more difficult – go too high and you’re in danger of being bumped off or penalised, too low and Williams will still punish you.
When Williams converted to Islam it caused a furore but it has certainly worked for him. He was a tearaway, in trouble for drink driving and minor violence as a youngster, but is now the perfect family man, tea-total and cuddling his baby daughter on the pitch after the win.
‘Selfish’ was another label attached to him when he was younger but now he comes through as the perfect team man.
“You don’t play the game to get your name in the paper the next day, you play for those emotions and your mates and when you realise that you actually enjoy the game a bit more,” he says.
He is even coping with Ramadan at the moment. Until June 24 he will fast in daylight hours – “No problem,” he says, “I can do all the on-field footie work and leave my weights until the evening, it’s only light for nine hours a day down here in winter, thank goodness.”
Too good to be true? The Lions will certainly be hoping so but, ominously, he now looks the real deal.