SBW: A waste of money?
Rich Freeman reports from Japan
November 14, 2012
Sonny Bill Williams' lucrative stint in Japan appears to have been brought to a premature end © Getty Images
It was supposed to be the signing that rejuvenated rugby in Japan - the catalyst for bringing back the crowds in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2019. But it could well end up being a total waste of money.
Sonny Bill Williams arrived in Japan in August to play for Panasonic Wild Knights after admitting the deal "was too good to turn down."
The former rugby league star turned boxer turned RWC winner was reportedly set to earn A$1.2m (£788,000) for just 12 games, money that Panasonic believed was well spent, despite the company suffering record losses.
The official line for last season's Top League runners-up and the Japan Rugby Football Union was that having one of the world's superstars playing in Japan would get the turnstiles clicking over and help increase the exposure of the game.
Sadly though, nothing has really gone to script and it seems Williams may well have played his last game in Japan after an injury in Round 8 forced him to have surgery and cancel a boxing match against South African Francois Botha.
While Panasonic are still saying they are hopeful Williams will return to play out the rest of the regular season, before he returns to Australia's National Rugby League, the Williams camp is being a little more cautious.
"He is recovering well, but because of where the injury is and how the arm is used in boxing as opposed to rugby these are the things we still have to work through to understand when he will be fit again," Williams' manager Khoder Nasser told AAP. Panasonic's return for their investment has been five wins and three losses - and Williams didn't even feature in one of the victories.
The Wild Knights opened their season against Ricoh Black Rams, but Williams was forced to watch the game from the stands after Panasonic coach Norifumi Nakajima deemed the former All Black not ready.
"I am going to have to get my head down in the books and learn the plays so rugby can be second nature," Williams told a packed news conference that included two TV crews from New Zealand, who had flown up hoping to see the Kiwi in action on the field rather than waving to fans from his seat in the stands.
Williams finally took the field in Round 2, but it was hardly the start Panasonic or the JRFU wanted. Just 2,200 turned up to watch the Wild Knights go down to NTT Communications Shining Arcs, who feature among others former All Black Isaac Ross, USA Eagles captain Todd Clever and former Leicester Tigers favourite Alesana Tuilagi.
The following week, 2,608 were in attendance as Williams finished on the winning side for the first time as Panasonic downed Brad Thorn's Fukuoka Sanix Blues.
Round 3 saw Panasonic take on Toshiba Brave Lupus and 12,289 turned up in the nation's capital to see Williams and co. fall to their second loss of the season, despite the New Zealand heavyweight champion crossing for his first try in Japan.
"We need to pick things up as a team," said Williams. "I am very disappointed and frustrated. I want to repay my teammates and the Panasonic supporters who have shown a lot of faith and love."
Things started to look up with victories over NEC Green Rockets and Yamaha Jubilo, only for things to take up a step back with a loss to Suntory Sungoliath.
The inside word is that Williams was on a "double your money bonus" if the Wild Knights had beaten last year's champions, but once again Panasonic weren't up for it.
"The problem they have is that the two foreigner rule means they have to play Mike Delany alongside Sonny Bill to show him the plays," said Japan coach Eddie Jones. "That means they aren't picking Daniel Heenan and they really miss his physical presence at the rucks and his leadership at the line-outs."
The Wild Knights were also missing Fumiaki Tanaka and Shota Horie, who were both playing for Otago in the ITM Cup, and while the pair will return for the remainder of the regular season, they too could miss the playoffs, should Panasonic make the top four. Tanaka has been signed by the Highlanders, making him the first Japanese player to win a Super Rugby contract, while Horie will join the Reds' academy team.
While Panasonic have failed to deliver, the same cannot be said for Suntory and Kobe Kobelco Steelers.
Suntory, who contain the likes of George Smith, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez lead the rankings having won eight from eight, while Jaque Fourie, Peter Grant and Craig Wing have helped Kobe to seven wins and a draw.
At the other end of the table, Sanix and Mils Muliaina's NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes occupy the bottom two spots. In days gone by this would be the two automatic relegation spots, but the league will expand to 16 teams next year, so the teams finishing 13th and 14th can prolong their time in the top flight by winning the expanded promotion/relegation play-offs.
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