SPOTLIGHT SERIES: SONNY BILL WILLIAMS
Updated: Feb 12
This article was originally published on February 5th, 2020.
Sonny Bill Williams (@SonnyBWilliams) returned to rugby league after a five-year absence at the weekend, with a mixed performance, for Toronto Wolfpack, and a memorable promise: “The magic will come.”
The 34-year-old made a name for himself through fancy off-loads and being a formidable defender, and being one of New Zealand's most divisive sporting figures. Outwith this Williams is one of the most remarkable sporting stories of the 21st century.
Sonny Bill Williams was born on August 3rd, 1985, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Along with his older brother and twin younger sisters he would grow up in subsidized housing in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert.
"It was a two-bedroom house with me, my brother, and my two sisters. Mum and dad slept in the lounge and we didn't have wallpaper. All my family lived close by and Eka was our scary older cousin that looked after us. He's been in and out of jail a lot," stated Williams when describing his childhood.
In his youth, he would be described as a "small, skinny white kid" who was "a freakish sporting talent." Williams would manage to compete in a number of rugby teams who competed in a few age divisions above.
In 2002, Williams was spotted by a scout of National Rugby League (NRL) side Bulldogs and was given the opportunity to move to Sydney. He would become the youngest player ever to sign with an NRL club.
Williams would later state that he accepted the offer from the Bulldogs was so that he could buy his mum a house.
Williams would quickly advance through the ranks at the Bulldogs, while also working as a full-time laborer.
Aged only 18 years old he would make his NRL debut against the Parramatta Eels. The following season he would cement a starting position, with the Bulldogs. Becoming the youngest player to appear for the Bulldogs in an NRL Grand Final, with their 16-13 victory over the Sydney Roosters, in 2004, for the first of many accolades to come.
In the same year, the second-rower was selected by the New Zealand Rugby League team, making his debut for the Kiwis as their youngest ever Test player, during the 2004 ANZAC Test against Australia. Williams’ remarkable year was capped off at the 2004 RLIF Awards, where he won the International Newcomer of the Year Award and was named in Rugby League World magazine's 2004 World XIII.
After a breakout season, Williams would receive a number of opportunities to move away from the Bulldogs, with his contract set to expire in 2005. Despite, receiving a bumper $3 million offer from English Super League club St Helens, he would choose to stay with the Bulldogs.
Over the next few seasons, Williams proved his quality, gaining a reputation for successful offloads, despite being plagued with injuries.
After five years with the Bulldogs, Williams decided to make the switch to Rugby Union. This switch would see him move to France to play for Toulon.
The move to France, although originally controversial, with Williams having to pay NZ$750,000 to get out of his Bulldogs' contract, proved to be a transformative experience.
While in France, Williams would state that he had found his faith, making the decision to convert to Islam.
He would credit the change as changing his life. Prior to his change in faith, Williams had famously been involved in a number of off-field incidents, spending as much time on the front page of the news as the back pages.
"Look, I chased girls. I drank alcohol, spent lavishly, and thought I was someone that I wasn't. I lived that life and, in my experience, what did it give me? Hollowness and emptiness in my heart," Williams said.
"It took a few years for the process, but I found Allah, I found Islam and it really allowed me to turn the wildness in myself into positivity."
During the 2009/10 season, he guided Toulon to a runners-up place in the European Challenge Cup.
In 2010, as Williams' contract was running out Toulon reportedly offered a $6million deal, which would have been the largest in rugby union history.
Williams would choose to turn down the ability to stay in France, in favor of a return to New Zealand. He would end up signing a contract with New Zealand Rugby Union so that he could open the possibility to represent the All Blacks.
The contract gave him the opportunity to compete at different levels. Williams would choose to play for Canterbury in the ITM Cup and the Crusaders in the Super Rugby competition.
Williams won the Ranfurly Shield as well as the ITM Cup during his inaugural campaign with Canterbury.
He would make his debut for the All Blacks against England, in November of 2010, becoming the first person since Karl Ifwersen, in the 1920s, to represent New Zealand in rugby union after first playing for the Kiwis in rugby league. He also became the fourth player to represent the All Blacks before playing a Super Rugby game.
On March 4, 2011, Williams would make his Super Rugby debut when he played for the Crusaders against the NSW Waratahs; marking the occasion with both a try and an assist. He would end his debut Crusaders campaign with the most off-loads, the second-highest line-break assists, and was also in the top 10 for tries.
Furthermore, in 2011 Williams would make his home Test debut for the All Blacks and also made his Rugby World Cup debut, during the opening game of the 2011 World Cup against Tonga.
Playing behind the great Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, Williams was a game-changing offloading savant who would come off the bench and made a difference. New Zealand would go on to win the tournament, finishing with a World Cup record of three tries as a substitute player.
In 2012, Williams would become only the third player to have won both an NRL and a Super Rugby title, as an integral part of the Chiefs' first-ever title. Even scoring the final try of the Grand Final. His celebratory leap into the crowd has become a truly iconic moment in New Zealand’s sporting history.
After leading the Chiefs to their first-ever championship, Williams would make a move to Japan to play the Panasonic Wild Knights in the Japanese Top League. It is believed that this deal would also be one of the highest-earning single-season contracts in the history of rugby union.
Williams would then make the decision to change codes and return to the NRL, this time helping the Sydney Roosters, as they won the 2013 title.
Again, Williams would change codes again, announcing that he would sign a two-year deal with the Chiefs in Super Rugby and another with Manukau in the ITM Cup, reuniting with his former Toulon coach Tana Umaga.
In 2014, Williams became the first player in rugby league history to sign a global ambassador contract with Adidas, joining the ranks of global sports stars like Lionel Messi, David Beckham, and Derrick Rose.
Williams would be named as part of the 2015 Rugby World Cup All Blacks squad, going on to play in every game as Steve Hansen’s men became the first team to successfully retain the Webb Ellis Cup after defeating Australia in the final.
In a moment that would be seen all around the world, Williams decided to give his World Cup medal to a 14-year-old fan, who had been tackled by security guards during the All Blacks lap of honor.
Williams would again look to change codes, this time looking to move to represent New Zealand in rugby sevens, at the 2016 Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro. Despite playing in a number of rugby sevens tournaments, during the lead-up. His Olympic journey was cut short, as he ruptured his Achilles tendon in New Zealand's opening game against Japan.
Finally, in 2017 Williams would return to rugby union, as part of the Blues Super Rugby team. Despite most of his time with the Blues being affected by injury, he would return to the All Blacks, finishing his international career with a World Cup semi-final loss to England.
Williams' career has been anything but ordinary, which has divided opinion like no All Black before him.
For those in the pro camp, Williams is one of the greatest athletes to have ever been an All Black, a success in rugby league and union, he is a player capable of the big off-loading play, a match, and title winner. However, his critics view him as entitled and injury-prone, a player who seemed to be able to pick when he played and was given allowances that were granted to few.
Off the Field
Away from the Rugby field, Williams is the proud owner of a 7-0 professional boxing record. Williams would state that he uses boxing to drown out the noise.
His professional debut coming on May 27th, 2009, where he defeated Garry Gurr with a technical knockout (TKO) in Brisbane, Australia.
In 2012, Williams would claim his first boxing belt after he defeating Clarence Tillman III to win the New Zealand Heavyweight title.
Williams also received global praise for visiting members of the community following the Christchurch massacre, in 2019, which left 51 people dead.
"Being one of the most high-profile Muslims in New Zealand and playing for the national team, the All Blacks, at the time, I knew that it was my duty," he says.
"I am a pretty shy guy but I had to step up, and I knew I had to be vulnerable in that space. I stepped up and represented not just the Muslim community that was hurting, but also the New Zealand community.
"As New Zealanders, we have done that and are leading in that space, and I am proud to say I was a part of that," Williams added.
After securing a third-place finish at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Williams was not quite ready to hang up his cleats and would once again transition back to rugby league.
He would end up signing a two-year deal with the newly-promoted Super League club, Toronto Wolfpack, worth up to $10million, along with a minority stake in the club. This would see Williams become the highest-paid player in world rugby.
Toronto Wolfpack gained promotion to the Super League last season and starting last weekend will compete against ten English teams and one French team. The club is the first North American team to play in the league and is the world's first transatlantic professional sports team.
Wolfpack chairman and CEO Robert Hunter described Williams as "rugby's LeBron James" and compared his inclusion in the league to LA Galaxy's signing of David Beckham, in MLS.