Life in a bubble: Sonny Bill Williams is a big fish in the small pond of the NRL. Photo: Anthony Johnson Sonny bill
Sonny Bill Williams playing for the All Blacks against England in Twickenham in 2010.
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Rugby league has many qualities, and rugby has been smart enough to quietly steal a few of the best.
It is not just the offloads (see All Blacks No.8 Kieran Read’s expanded skill portfolio over recent years), but the fitness work too.
Repeat efforts in defence is the prerequisite for rugby defences these days, a mirror of the tough work of getting back into the defensive line that league’s hard men have been mastering for years.
More broadly, league remains the game of the working man: egalitarian and championing the qualities of hard work.
At its best, it has echoes of boxing’s best storylines. (We all know what it looks like at its worst, but that discussion is not for this column.)
But there was a game of rugby in Johannesburg at the weekend, between the Springboks and All Blacks at Ellis Park, that showed why Sonny Bill Williams will be feeling rugby tugging so persistently at him even as he celebrates with the Roosters.
Often, rugby’s appeal as a global sport can be a little overplayed. It is not as if league players are forced to hand in their passports. They can still see the world if they choose.
But in sporting terms, the superb Johannesburg Test, won 38-27 by the All Blacks, had significance well beyond the national borders in which it was played.
Northern hemisphere nations, still buoyed by the British and Irish Lions series win, watched a classic Test match unfold, assessing the size of the challenge that’s coming their way in spring. In Argentina, the Wallabies were watching and took it as their cue to get their act together.
There is quite simply a stage open to rugby players that the NRL cannot match in scale and significance.
Another way of looking at it is this: had Williams not been loyal to his handshake deal with Nick Politis, on Saturday he would have been playing on the same turf that Nelson Mandela and Springboks captain Francois Pienaar graced in their act of kinship at the World Cup final in 1995, which helped heal the wounds of a nation. Instead, he was at Homebush.
It was also clear from the All Blacks’ win – and elements of the Wallabies’ performance against Argentina – that the idea that rugby cannot offer athletes an opportunity to express themselves in the same way as league is a myth. In the Springboks v All Blacks game, the ball was in play for 38.31 minutes, at altitude.
Possession often shifted once or twice in the same passage of play, causing wonderful havoc with defensive structures. The game has no need to justify itself to critics from other codes when such a beautiful template is delivered.
Nods, winks and perhaps some wishful thinking have invaded the vacuum created by Williams’ lack of comment on his future.
My own hunch is that Williams will return to rugby in 2014 for the reasons mentioned above, his connection with the Chiefs in New Zealand and perhaps even a cautionary tale associated with the performance of his friend Liam Messam in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Messam scored two tries in a wonderful and physical performance in the All Blacks’ No.6 jersey. Two years ago that garment was owned by Jerome Kaino, much more than Williams has ever had possession of the All Blacks’ No.12.
Now, after a spell in Japan, the 30-year-old Kaino has returned to New Zealand and has a battle on his hands to regain it. The longer Williams delays a return, the more he risks.
And there is a significant chapter that remains blank in Williams’ tale, a central role in the 2015 World Cup in England (for all the talk of the 2016 Olympics, that’s the dessert, not the main course).
In England, in Test midfields, await the giant Welshman Jamie Roberts, England’s monster Manu Tuilagi, the Frenchmen Wesley Fofana and Gael Fickou and, possibly, Israel Folau of the Wallabies.
If Williams wants to write the sort of legacy that the world knows about, he’ll have to pack his heavy heart and, for all its qualities, leave rugby league.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.