This week, Sonny Bill Williams has secured his position as the greatest cross-code rugby player of his generation. The confirmation of his signing to Canadian Rugby Super League new boys Toronto Wolfpack acts as a fitting new chapter in a career that has been as high-octane as it has been stratospheric.
Two-time World Cup winner with the All Blacks, the cross-code Kiwi will be playing Rugby League for the first time since his one-year stint at the Roosters in the season of 2013/14. Penning a £5.2 million two-year deal, Williams has become the most expensive rugby player of all time in a move that has caught the attention of the wider sporting world.
The first ‘big name’ to move to North America, it will be hard for Williams not to see himself as a trailblazer for a sport with previously little exposure in the continent. Comparisons have been made between Williams and David Beckham when the footballer made his move to MLS side LA Galaxy in 2007.
Not only are these two sportsmen well-skilled in their craft, but also, they represent something greater. Both Beckham and Williams personify the nature of a ‘brand’.
“Brand” is how the Wolfpack Chief Executive Bob Hunter and head coach Brian McDermott chose to describe Williams, and it’s hard to disagree.
Not only is he a player filled with talent who plays in an exciting, confrontational style; Williams comes across socially and politically active and a man whose life is centred on his faith and his family. In March of this year he was present and visible as a representative for the New Zealand Muslim community after the atrocities of the Christ Church shooting. Furthermore, this religious conversion from a life that – in his own words – gave him “hollowness and emptiness in his heart”, adds a redemptive arc to his individual narrative.
Sonny Bill is not without his doubters. The regularity of his injuries and the irregularity of his appearances has certainly raised eyebrows.
“A record of just 18 appearances for the Blues across the last three years, while playing 24 times for the All Blacks, does paint the picture of a player who either has a body clock set for the big occasions, or “times” his injuries conveniently,” writes Matt McILraith in The Guardian.
However, this week has served to prove that these doubts have not impacted on Williams’ global reckoning. He is rugby’s greatest enigma at the moment and, if he can help in expending rugby’s reach to North America, this could well be Williams’ most important move to date.