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12 November 2015

The legend of Sonny Bill

Sonny Bill Williams’s contributions outside of matches are even more memorable than his playing.

By Tim Wigmore

Cut-throat professional sport is supposed to have little room for individualism. Nobody told Sonny Bill Williams, the New Zealand centre who has made a career out of defying convention.

Moments after the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup, Charlie Line, a 14-year-old boy, leaped over the barriers at Twickenham to join the celebration on the pitch. He was promptly floored by a steward’s rugby tackle. Enter Williams, a man whose physique stands out even by comparison with team-mates. First, he lifted Line from the ground, taking him away from the steward. Then, as he took the boy back towards his mother, Williams draped his newly acquired World Cup winner’s medal around Line’s head and gave him a hug.

Williams claimed that any of his team-mates would have done the same. Yet somehow it was apt that he was the man who made a young boy’s day.

Born into a working-class family in Auckland (Williams’s father is Samoan), the self-confessed “small, skinny white kid” grew into a rugby league prodigy. At the age of 18, he debuted for the Bulldogs in Sydney, becoming the youngest player to sign a professional contract with the club. The following year, he became the youngest player to play an Anzac Test for New Zealand. He was also becoming one of the sport’s wild children, earning a ban for drink-driving and being caught urinating in public and in a notorious “toilet tryst”.

Still, rugby union took heed of his talent. Like many of the best league players, Williams switched codes to union when he signed for the French club Toulon in 2008, though only after the Bulldogs had accused him of breaking a five-year contract. The move to France was the prelude to an even more significant conversion. Williams befriended a Tunisian family and subsequently embraced Islam, which he credits with bringing him calm and contentment. When he made his international rugby union Test debut in 2010, Williams was the first Muslim to represent the All Blacks. A year later, he had his first World Cup medal.

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Williams’s speed, agility, strength and, above all, his wonderful handling skills make him equally suited to rugby league and rugby union. He returned to league in 2013 and promptly helped New Zealand to the final of the World Cup and was named the rugby league international player of the year. In 2014, he switched codes again and was immediately recalled to the All Blacks, scoring two tries and winning the man of the match award in his first game back.

All the while, Williams had a sideline in a third sport: boxing. Since making his professional debut in 2009, Williams has won all seven of his fights – three of them knockouts – but was stripped of two titles because he was too busy with his rugby commitments to accept any challenges to the ring. “Every sport has helped me excel in another,” he has said. “Boxing has given me the mental strength to know that I can face anything on the field.”

His spirit remains restless. After the Rugby World Cup, he will take a break from union to take up rugby sevens full-time, in an attempt to be selected for New Zealand’s sevens squad for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. The All Blacks will miss him. Though he was mainly used as a substitute, Williams played his part in their World Cup triumph, transforming a match against Argentina with his powerful running, scoring a try against Tonga and then playing in the second half of the final against Australia.

Yet Sonny Bill Williams’s contributions outside of the matches were even more memorable. Before the World Cup semi-final against South Africa, he offered two of his tickets to Syrian refugees. Then, after the All Blacks had triumphed in the close game, Williams took the time to console the distraught young Springbok centre Jesse Kriel.

It’s just as well, then, that World Rugby broke with convention and awarded Williams a second World Cup medal to replace the one that he gave away. 

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe