To say that the return of Sonny Bill Williams to Rugby League is much anticipated, would be a big understatement. No matter how anyone feels about him, we all cannot wait to see him return to our beloved game of rugby league.
Williams’ sabbatical has formed much of the basis of current opinion on him. He was in fact voted the most hated athlete in 2008, but despite this he has not taken a backwards step since leaving the Bulldogs. There have been 4 and a half years since his last NRL match and much has happened in this time.
Bulldogs fans would naturally remain bitter because of the circumstances of his departure. However, then and now, there is no doubting the man’s ability. Sonny Bill Williams is a naturally gifted athlete and competitor. To put it colloquially, the man is also a machine! In terms of his football, the only concern when he was playing rugby league was his ability to stay on the field. He seemed to miss more football than he played. However, when he did play, boy could he play. He was an absolutely barnstorming unit and a weapon on the field. What he was most famous for was his lethal shoulder charge, more on that later.
In his time in Rugby Union, which his natural gifts allowed him to excel in quickly (they did also help him get in trouble quickly, more on that later), he seemed better conditioned and the machine of his body stopped breaking down. Once the rugby league community got over the fact that he walked out on his contract, and he was heard expressing the desire to return to rugby league, league fans could again watch him in awe.
Many would dream of a quick return in which he slotted into the back row of the team they support. Because prior to his self-imposed exodus he had signed a 5 year contract with the Bulldogs the situation became difficult for any league club because they would have to pay the Bulldogs as well as SBW in order to put him on their roster. Despite SBW having had to pay the dogs 1 million dollars cash for leaving in the manner he did before he was allowed to commence his professional rugby career.
Theoretically, the Bulldogs could have welcomed him back into their ranks, resumed paying his salary or even drawn up a new contract and actually received his services in return. Theoretically this would not have been an issue for him either as the main issues which caused him to leave the club had in time departed themselves. But, there is no necessary relationship between theory and reality.
The biggest argument from the perspective of the Bulldogs was that there is no point giving a contract to someone who had previously walked out on one. This situation strangely favoured the Bulldogs as until the end of his initial contract period, they controlled his ability to return. He could return to them if they were prepared to have him or another team could pick him up and pay the Bulldogs and him to get him on their roster. So outside of league he remained.
In his time outside of rugby league he became a formidable union player and only the second Kiwi to represent his country in league and then in union. He also achieved a lot in his time in rugby union and developed markedly as an athlete and it seems as an adult as well. He commenced a boxing career in which he showed his ability to hold his own as a heavy weight boxer, continuing his growth as an athlete.
This history lesson will not be complete until I come back to the start of his rugby career. SBW draws attention wherever he goes; French rugby was to be no exception. It did not take long for Sonny Bill to put on a signature move and get a lot of attention for it. But in Rugby the reception was a little different to that which he had been receiving in league as he was given a stint in the sin bin in his very first game because union does not appreciate the shoulder charge.
Having to do without what seemed to be the greatest weapon in his arsenal failed to stop Williams from becoming one of rugby’s best, it just forced him to sharpen his other skills to make up for the damage he was not allowed to do with the shoulder charge. It did take him a while to learn his lesson, but that time and continued penalty taught him about discipline.
In 2012 his 5 year contract with the Bulldogs would have ended and it was confirmed that he was likely to return to league and join the Roosters in 2013. We could look forward to him once again being allowed to do damage with that lethal shoulder and we could dream up the big hits highlights reel for 2013. But, there is no necessary relationship between expectations and reality, and the outlawing of the shoulder charge in rugby league never seemed likely…
It would then appear that the rule followed him and that he unwittingly walked out on his ability to legally affect a shoulder charge when he walked out on his contract with the Bulldogs. He had to learn the hard way not to use the shoulder charge in rugby and even then, at times he would forget as the move came so naturally to him.
He remained a weapon through what he could do inside the rules as the conditioning of a machine such as his body seems bound to produce. The operating system has matured too and learnt to adapt to changes in environment, in conditions, in rules and now the period he was contracted with the Bulldogs for is over. He has achieved so much in his time away from rugby league and is ready to return and absolve himself of past sins.
As well as being purged of his injury problems and growing immensely as an athlete, in his time away, Williams also purged himself of incidents that plagued him off the field. He appears to have given up alcohol which not only served to make him a better athlete on the field but also took away his ability to have alcohol related incidents off it.
The time has come for him to find redemption in rugby league. If he cannot do that, at least play some good football so we can see footage of that rather than the nonsense which has plagued the pre-season. Nonsense that has nothing to do with him but that he can shift attention away from nonetheless. The rugby league world could really use his attention grabbing right now especially if he will be doing it on a footy field.