With the NRL set to begin this weekend all eyes will be on the clash between local rivals the Rabbitohs and the Roosters, with Sonny Bill Williams named on the bench for the latter.
Although having missed both the Roosters’ pre-season matches and said to have been recuperating from a torn pectorial muscle coach Trent Robinson assured fans Williams would feature in the opening round clash, signalling the former All Blacks’ return to the NRL following his shock departure halfway through the 2008 season, when he skipped out of his contract with the Bulldogs.
The media hype around SBW’s return to the NRL is undeniable, and confirms his status as a true draw-card. While the powers-that-be at Roosters HQ will be hoping Williams can inspire their side to turn around what was a terrible year in 2012 he also has the weight of expectation on his shoulders from global apparel giant Nike. A lucrative deal with the Oregon-based company will see SBW become the poster boy for Nike in Rugby League circles, where he will parade their latest creation, the Mercurial Vapor IX.
I’ve heard interesting, and mixed, things about Sonny Bill over the years. People I know who were involved with him at the Canterbury Rugby Union when he first returned to New Zealand speak highly of him, both as an athlete and as a person.
But I was also recently chatting to a guy who played alongside him at Panasonic during his recent stay in Japan, who had few positive things to say about him. Apparently the common consensus in that part of the world is that Williams faked (or at least exaggerated) the injury which saw him end his brief stint at Panasonic, although the players themselves weren’t exactly sad to see the back of him. A clause built in to his contract which allowed him to complete his boxing training while at Panasonic reportedly saw him and his coaches/managers/hangers-on take over the relatively small gym facilities at Panasonic headquarters, consigning the rest of the team to a corner and surrounding them in the media circus that inevitably follows Sonny Bill wherever he goes.
At the end of the day he’s one of those sporting figures that really polarises opinions, but when it comes down to it all that matters is what he does on the field, and we’re about to find out whether he can be as destructive on the Rugby League field now as he was five years ago.