Sonny Bill Williams didn’t want to play this week.
The reaction was natural. Fulltime had just confirmed the stunning end of New Zealand’s eight-year reign as Rugby World Cup champion. Williams was in the middle of Yokohama Stadium last Saturday, getting to grips with the All Blacks’ title defense crashing into an England wall. Out of the final, Williams didn’t want to play for third place.
“But within the space of five, 10 minutes, I flipped the script,” he says. “We’re all driven individuals and we were all very, very disappointed. I was disappointed. But a game doesn’t define who I am. So then I just took a step back. I shared a few words with Sammy (Cane, teammate) and just said how special it’s been throughout my career, being able to play with a guy like him. I saw other players as well, and I thought, ‘Well how good is this, we still get another week in camp together.’”
Williams will play on Friday in the bronze playoff against Wales in Tokyo, and bring to an end the most polarizing All Black career of modern times.
He freely admits he’s not to everybody’s liking. He’s been accused of being a mercenary, tagged as injury prone, and of costing the All Blacks the 2017 series against the British and Irish Lions.
Williams has switched between rugby league and rugby union three times and a fourth switch is on the cards, back to rugby league if the speculation on his future is to be believed. In recent years he’s appeared so infrequently on the field that observers questioned what form was justifying his All Blacks selection.
And yet, when the New Zealand lineups have been announced in the stadiums in Japan, the crowds have cheered his name the loudest alongside Beauden Barrett and captain Kieran Read.
One of only 20 players to win two Rugby World Cups, Williams began having doubts last year he’d get to Japan. Right knee surgery in April amplified the doubts.
“With the amount of injuries I’ve had the last few years, of course I questioned myself,” Williams says. “Every time I got on the field I was really happy with how I went, so it was just about getting the body right. I never questioned my ability but questioned the body at times, and just grateful that it’s come through.
“I try to have that gratitude every day. We can get caught up in the machine that is the All Blacks and the pressure that comes with it. Yet, when you break it down, you realize that it’s actually a dream job, then you walk round with a smile on your face.”
Williams has come off the bench against South Africa, Ireland, and England. His one start against Canada was impressive, as he set up three tries in a row with a kick, offload, and lob, prompting coach Steve Hansen to say: “He’s injury free and starting to look like the old Sonny.”
That outrageous talent earned Williams meteoric attention from 2004, at age 18, when he made his debut in Australia’s National Rugby League and helped Canterbury to the title, and became the youngest Kiwi rugby league international. He broke his contract to switch to rugby union in 2008, and within months of moving to New Zealand in 2010 he made a winning All Blacks debut against England.
His golden touch extended to helping New Zealand in 2011 win the Rugby World Cup and end 20 years of misery, winning the vacant New Zealand heavyweight boxing title in 2012, helping the Chiefs win their first Super Rugby title that year, then helping the Sydney Roosters win the NRL in 2013 after an 11-year drought.
The touch carried into 2015 when he won his second Rugby World Cup, and during the lap of honor at Twickenham gave his medal to a teen who ran on the pitch and was tackled by a security guard. He also accepted a request from UNICEF to help Syrian refugees.
His luck then turned.
Williams hoped to add an Olympic Games medal in sevens but ruptured an Achilles tendon in his first match in Rio de Janeiro. He courted controversy in 2017 when he got dispensation to cover up certain Super Rugby sponsor logos on his jersey because of his Islamic faith, and then came the red card in the second test against the Lions, the first issued to an All Black in 50 years. It was the turning point in that ultimately drawn series.
Injuries have freed him to play only 24 of New Zealand’s 52 tests since the last World Cup, but age and adversity have given him maturity and perspective. The father of three with a fourth on the way finds himself “the dad of the team,” Sam Cane says with a smile.
“A trophy, a medal, I find they’re all fleeting moments,” Williams says. “I just try to be the best me each day, whether that’s on the field or at home. I just try to do it with a smile and, generally when I’m doing that, and I’m having fun, working hard, not taking any shortcuts and being the best person I can be, then success comes with it.”
On the eve of his last match for the All Blacks, the 34-year-old Williams says he still gets butterflies in his stomach on the morning of games, is no longer intimidated by the big occasions, and still loves to play.
“Until that fire dwindles out,” he says, “I’ll still be trying to hang on and keep playing.”
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