Box office Bill
July 8, 2012
Sonny Bill Williams' trademark ability to offload in the tackle has caused defences trouble across the globe © Getty Images
A certain Walt Disney is widely credited with the saying "Always leave them wanting more" but it could just have easily rolled off the tongue of another potential dream maker - Sonny Bill Williams.
Disney clearly knew a thing or two about good box office and so too does Williams having put pen to paper on the latest lucrative chapter of his fascinating career that leaves New Zealand rugby craving more from arguably the sport's most bankable star. But they are not the first.
His controversial departure from the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008, which resulted in a five-year ban from the 13-man code, had the NRL club demanding the want-away Williams see out the four years remaining on his contract but those pleas fell on deaf ears as he settled into his new home in Toulon. However, the Top 14 club would also suffer as a result of Williams' desire to continually challenge himself with his dream of playing for the All Blacks leading to his return to New Zealand just two years later. Not even an offer to make him the highest paid player in the game could cloud his judgement and Toulon's deep-pocketed owner Mourad Boudjellal was just the latest name to be left craving more from the charismatic centre.
A dazzling two-year stint in Super Rugby would follow where the defence-wrecking ability to offload in the tackle, his eye-catching trademark, served first the Crusaders and then the Chiefs so well. His headline-grabbing exploits ensured he was fast-tracked into the All Blacks' set-up and while he has only been a bit-part player in his 17-Test international career, he has looked an increasingly assured and influential presence of late, silencing his doubters in the process. But now the New Zealand Rugby Union, having successfully lured Williams home with the promise of a shirt rather than a blank cheque, face harsh reality that neither will persuade him to stay and the same empty feeling as experienced by many before them.
The ink was not even dry on his latest career move before his critics were circling. His loyalty was once again being questioned but such accusations belong to a by-gone age. As soon as the game belatedly embraced professionalism it laid the foundation for days such as these when the world's best players leverage their market value for their own gain. But to suggest Williams' motives are entirely driven by economic factors would be unfair. His decision to turn his back on unprecedented riches in Toulon in favour of All Blacks honours instantly scratched the 'Money Bill' moniker from his record and while the Wild Knights in Japan and in all likelihood the Sydney Roosters are to bolster his bank reserves, we are led to believe his return to the NRL can be traced back to a "handshake agreement." He didn't want to leave the All Blacks and the Chiefs but felt compelled to do so.
That he would choose to honour that agreement at this stage of his career, just as he appeared destined for mega-stardom is as amazing as some of his physics-defying displays with ball in hand. Instead of leveraging the fact that his commercial clout was now poised to be matched by his on-field prowess, he is packing his bags once again.
Williams' reluctance to tie himself down for more than a year is just one of many fascinating aspects of his persona and arguably says more about him than the millions many are prepared to pay him. If he was the 'money-grabbing' mercenary many would have you believe he would surely take the bumper pay days available to him in a sporting environment where retirement is just one bad tackle away. But no, with his equally intriguing manager Khoder Nasser pulling the strings, he refuses to commit beyond a year to stay in complete control of his career in the belief that it keeps all parties on their toes. Convinced they will continue to deliver on the field and off it as a bankable brand, the risky business move has only served to drive up his value to this point in his career.
"Different things drive different people," commented his All Blacks team-mate Dan Carter, who, in contrast, chose to commit his long-term future to New Zealand rugby in the face of lucrative offers from overseas.
That freedom of expression allows Williams to continue to chase his dream of not only playing multiple sports but excelling in the rival rugby codes and his most recent career tangent - boxing. The latter remains a work in progress after a host of less-than-impressive match-ups but with another fight expected to be staged in South Africa next year, where Williams is a huge draw, signals it remains very much part of his career path and one that the Roosters, like the NZRU, will have to live with.
Despite the apparent inferior quality of his opponents, boxing looms large as another potential pitfall that could easily derail his entire sporting career but Williams resolve cannot be broken. A quietly religious man, hailed as "the most famous Muslim in New Zealand" having converted to Islam last year, he clearly has faith his career is in the right hands.
Williams' refusal to play by the accepted rules in terms of length of contract, and gamble with his own security, may infuriate those attempting to factor his talents into their squad development and marketing plans but what someone like him brings short-term outweighs the ability to bank on his presence beyond the constraints of a single season. He is re-writing the rules in so many ways. Perhaps instead of questioning his perceived selfishness, we should applaud his bravery?
Some may suggest he owes the NZRU a little more respect having granted him his wish to play for the All Blacks and allowed him to pursue his boxing dream but he has more than honoured his side of their agreement. That generosity on their part may well pave the way for Williams' return to union and the All Blacks' ranks ahead of their World Cup defence in 2015.
Williams may not be primarily driven to write his name alongside greats such as Meads, Lomu and McCaw but do not underestimate the power of his own motivation or his bond with the All Blacks that will most likely lead to his return.
Odds are that he will be back, a better player, a bigger star and an even more bankable box office draw.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.