Providing he survives his boxing bout against Francois Botha, Sonny Bill Williams is about to embark on the next phase of the sporting odyssey that is his professional career, returning to the 13-man code and the competition he walked away from mid-way through the season in 2008.
His impending re-emergence in the NRL had me thinking about how he compares to another ‘code-hopper’, the one and only Brad Thorn, and the legacy each is set to leave behind.
I don’t necessarily want to get on Sonny Bill’s case here. He is unquestionably an exceptional athlete who quickly became one of the most dynamic Rugby Union players on the planet, and by all accounts he’s a decent bloke off the field as well. But I’ve had a feeling for a while now that SBW is set to go down in history remembered as the player with an abundance of potential who flitted between various sports and managed to conquer none of them.
I certainly don’t begrudge a young guy his right to chase the money and make the most of the short window he has as a professional athlete. But Sonny Bill has such a freakish set of skills that I believe he could have been considered New Zealand’s greatest ever league player, and even a legendary All Black, had he committed to one code and dedicated his energies into realising the full scope of his natural talents.
There’s just something about the way he’s handled himself as he jumped from sport to sport, from organisation to organisation, and the ‘Don King’ of Australasia, Koder Nasser, his flamboyant, controversial manager, has unquestionably contributed to this. There has been a certain lack of sincerity in the decisions he has made and the way he has handled himself as a professional, and I can’t help thinking, whether rightly or wrongly, that his career, when it finishes, will be judged not only on his prowess on the field, but the image he created off it.
Brad Thorn couldn’t be more different. I’m not trying to say that SBW’s moral compass is weak, but Thorn oozes integriy – he even managed to commit the outragerous act of turning down an All Black jersey and still come back to be one of the favourite sons of New Zealand Rugby.
Thorn chopped and changed regularly, but stayed long enough in each code to genuinely earn his spot in every representative side he made, and to help all of those sides to considerable acheivements.
Regardless of what SBW may have achieved to date, few, if any, players will ever scale the heights that Thorn has. In Rugby League the Australians are far and away the finest team in the world, and Thorn was a stalwart of their national side. In Rugby the All Blacks have set the standard, and ‘Big Brad’ played an integral role in their successful Rugby World Cup campaign in 2011.
On the league field Thorn had the honour or playing State of Origin, something Kiwis can only dream of. Origin is almost certainly the pinnacle of Rugby League – the fierecest rivalry, the fastest game, and the ultimate test of skill. In his prime Thorn’s was one of the first names written down by the Maroons’ selectors when Origin time rolled around.
As his All Black career wound down he had become similarly reverred by his coaches in the 15-man code. After acting as the driving force behind the All Blacks tight five in the World Cup he headed off-shore, helping Leinster win the highly-prized Heinken Cup before eventually agreeing terms with the Highlanders for a return to the South Island.
Obviously the two are different players with different personalities. But there is something about the way in which Brad Thorn carries himself that makes you admire and respect the man and all that he acheives, and for some reason that seems to be lacking when you look at Sonny Bill.
But that’s not to say his image can’t be repaired. The next few years will be incredibly interesting. If Sonny Bill throws his heart and soul in to his stint with the Roosters and helps the famous Eastern Suburbs’ side to NRL glory his reputation could be safe and his status as one of the games iconic players revived. But if he puts in a lacklustre couple of seasons in Australia, spreading his time between the league field and the boxing gym before skipping back across the Tasman to try for an All Black recall ahead of the 2015 World Cup any skerrick of integrity he may have had will vanish.
Only time will tell!