Sonny Bill Williams’ transition to sainthood continues at warp speed. Few athletes in any sport, let alone one with as tumultuous a past as his, can have undergone such a spectacular PR makeover as this bull-like centre with the velvet hands. Within 10 days he has given away semi-final tickets to Syrian refugees, picked up vanquished Springbok Jessie Kriel off the Twickenham turf in an indelible image of fair play, and stamped his ticket to canonisation by placing his World Cup winner’s medal around the neck of a 10-year-old boy steamrollered by a security guard.
Such was the effect of Williams’s gesture to young All Blacks fan Charlie Lines, he received a standing ovation during Sunday night’s World Rugby awards when he emerged on stage to receive a replacement medal.
“A young fella snuck out on to the field somehow, but when he was coming up to give me a hug he got smoked by the guard,” Williams explained. “He was lucky the guy didn’t break his ribs. If that had been my cousin or brother, I would have given the bloke a hiding. Instead, I just picked him up, took him back to his old lady and tried to make the night more memorable for him. Rather than hanging up at home, that medal is going to be around his neck. He can tell the story for a long time to come.”
His intimation of using violence against the blundering steward was no idle boast. ‘SBW’, as he is known across New Zealand, has already tucked two heavyweight boxing titles into his increasingly eclectic trophy cabinet. He can claim a 2012 victory over Francois Botha, the ‘White Buffalo’ renowned for bouts against Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, even if he was almost floored by the South African’s right hand. Such is the lustre of a sportsman heralded as a veritable miracle of nature.
Two National Rugby League titles with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, a hat-trick of Bledisloe Cup triumphs, and now the long-coveted sensation of Rugby World Cup glory just two years after he fractionally fell short in his quest to achieve the same in league. Tellingly, Williams is already dropping suggestions about his involvement in the sevens tournament at next summer’s Rio Olympics. Consummate polymath that he is, there are still more realms left to conquer.
It is a remarkable rebirth for this cross-code wonder, who harbours a controversial history as a political football, shunted endlessly from league to union and back again as he sought the most fruitful platform for his talents. According to Sonny Ball, a fascinating recent book by Paul Kent on Williams’s tortured journey, he was urged to quit the All Blacks only a month before the 2011 World Cup. Having grown frustrated with Sir Graham Henry’s preference for using Ma’a Nonu at inside centre, a furious Williams was allegedly told by boxer Anthony Mundine, one of his closest confidants: “F— him, bro. Let’s go shopping in LA. You need some new clothes. He’s got the world’s best player in his team and he leaves him on the bench. Who the f— does he think he is?”
Williams would hardly have won any popularity contests in league, either, when he declared himself unavailable for selection for the 2013 World Cup, only to call New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney moments later to explain that he wanted to play. Khoder Nasser, his charismatic Lebanon-born agent, justified the sudden volte face by saying: “We’re very spontaneous.” The perception in his homeland was that Tohu Harris, the player forced to make way, had been sacrificed on the altar of Williams’s colossal arrogance.
These preconceptions have tilted 180 degrees in the wake of Williams’s extraordinary magnanimity in the black jersey. He radiates contentment, now that Steve Hansen has invested faith in his abilities as a game-changing replacement, who helped turn the course of New Zealand’s semi-final win over South Africa and the final against Australia by virtue of his silky offloading. He can dare to contemplate a future as a first-choice 12, too, with the departing midfield duo of Nonu and Conrad Smith giving way seamlessly to the era of SBW and Malakai Fekitoa. Courtesy of his benevolent intervention on behalf of Charlie Lines, his image transformation is complete.
Photo: GETTY IMAGES EUROPE
The decision to forsake league for union is one with which he feels increasingly comfortable. His father, John, played it, and his maternal grandfather was a much-feted coach. He remains exceptionally close to both parents, having bought houses for both John, who travelled with him to Sydney on his first forays into league, and Lee, who continues to work as a carer in a retirement home in Auckland’s Mount Albert district. She had lived in the same unprepossessing government house for 30 years, before Sonny Bill insisted that she should have somewhere more luxurious. John, meanwhile, who traces his ancestry to Samoa, has carved out a living painting naval vessels in Australia.
Within a mere 19 Tests for the All Blacks Williams was cast as a hybrid of the best qualities of Jonah Lomu, Brian O’Driscoll and Richie McCaw: tactically astute, with the smoothest handling and wonderfully incisive running lines. At this World Cup, he has finally offered a rousing demonstration of how to turn those traits to his advantage.
His renaissance, curiously, has its roots in religion. While he grew up a Christian, in accordance with his Polynesian heritage, Williams has since converted to Islam, acknowledging that the discipline required in fasting for Ramadan has made him appreciate the meaning of self-sacrifice. “You’re that much more appreciative of being able to eat food and drink water,” he says. “That’s what it is designed to do.”
Commercially, the embrace of union makes perfect sense for Williams, a figure of such arresting physical presence that he once adorned billboards in Brisbane under the slogan: “SBW OMG.” He has been breathlessly credited with a combination of Lionel Messi’s genius and David Beckham’s marketability. As Nasser, who negotiates his myriad endorsement deals, puts it: “League is a limited game, whereas in union Sonny has the chance to showcase his unique talents to the world.”
The memory of Williams’s chaotic early days with the Bulldogs seem distant. There, he was a teenager seldom out of trouble, charged for drink-driving and urinating in public before he was captured by a tabloid photographer in a compromising position with a model in Sydney’s Clovelly Hotel. Today, he is the very model of decorum, never shy of showing off photographs of his baby son or of arguing that his notorious shopping habit – his million-dollar salary in league would soon evaporate in his trips to California with Mundine – has become secondary to his faith.
At 30, Williams could yet spearhead the All Blacks’ pursuit of a third consecutive Webb Ellis Cup in Japan in 2019, now that Nonu’s move to Toulon liberates him to make his name in a starting role. It is a tantalising prospect for a star whose gifts are, in the words of his own mother, “beyond a joke”. Once brash, cocksure and polarising, Williams departs these shores discovering that his stock has never been higher. A certain Charlie Lines should treasure that keepsake for good.