All Blacks superstar Sonny Bill Williams is a man on a mission in what could be his last lap of the rugby track in New Zealand, writes MARC HINTON.
Williams is on top of his game away from the rugby field. That much we know for sure. In an impossibly difficult year to be a Muslim in New Zealand, the experienced All Black has made all the right moves and said all the right things to emerge as a symbolic figure in a delicate healing process for his country.
The man who, by his own admission, is ‘not everyone’s cup of tea’ as a rugby player, has the unabashed admiration of his nation for the way he handled himself after New Zealand’s worst mass terror attack, the Christchurch mosque shootings in March that claimed the lives of 51 Muslims.
As the most recognisable follower of Islam in his country, Williams was always going to be watched closely through the tragedy. His response was beyond reproach; from the tearful social media reaction to the events that unfolded on the day, to his dash to Christchurch the week after to visit survivors of the shootings and attend a call to prayer in Hagley Park, and then his stirring words at a remembrance service at Eden Park two weeks after the attack.
There can be no doubt that Williams captured the essence of this unspeakable tragedy as the tender, forgiving voice of his faith and that he has represented his people, his sport and his country in an outstanding fashion.
It is not just in crisis that he has set the tone, either. This year Williams completed a bachelor’s degree in applied management (sport) with distinction and shared that news on his social media channels with this message: ‘Yes, a Pacific Islander, boxer, league, sevens & rugby player can GRADUATE! Don’t ever let anyone pigeonhole you. Alhamdulillah [all praise is due to God alone].’
Later he spoke about his belief in the importance of education, of the need to better himself and to be a positive role model for his three children.
‘With the growth in mindset I’ve had, I’ve always wanted to be better,’ he said at a Blues late-season training session. ‘Yes, I’ve made some mistakes in my life, but I firmly believe mistakes are just lessons, you learn from them and move forward. I guess studying was just an eventual thing … it was just going to happen. I love leaders who lead through actions.
‘I have young kids. I know I didn’t have to study, but I want my kids to grow up and be whatever they want to be. Yeah, they’re Pacific Islanders and that stereotype probably doesn’t open all doors for them. But if they want to step into that arena I want them to do that and I understand education plays a process in that. I don’t want to be one of those guys who says, “Go do that” and they turn around and say, “Ah, Dad, you dropped out of school at 14, what are you talking about?” That was the whole reason for it.’
Williams also found himself captain of the Blues the week they returned to the field after the sudden death of squad member Mike Tamoaieta. It was another difficult situation the experienced All Black handled with sensitivity as he spoke about the business of sport being put into perspective.
‘It is only a game, at the end of the day,’ he reflected after a difficult match against the Sunwolves at Tamoaieta’s home ground in Albany. ‘The funeral was pretty tough … some of the things that happened, some of the footage we saw, it touches you. We honoured that by showing how grateful we are, firstly to be professional sportsmen and do what we love doing, but also by cherishing our family members, cherishing our kids, cherishing our mums and dads.’
And so it has continued throughout what everybody expects to be his final season in New Zealand rugby. There’s a seasoned maturity, a sense of responsibility and an abiding wisdom about him that hasn’t always been there throughout his storied sport career.
‘I’ve become a true Muslim,’ Williams told CNN not long after he made the conversion. ‘It’s given me happiness. It’s made me become content as a man and helped me grow. I’ve just got faith in it and it has definitely helped me become the man I am today.’
Marriage to Alana, whom he adores, and their three children, whom he dotes on, have completed the journey. How comfortable is he is his skin now? Last year Williams opined to his near million followers on Twitter that at times he was moved to tears by the love and appreciation he felt for his wife. Then he followed that up by declaring his intention to ‘break down the barriers of unhealthy thinking men have around masculinity’.
And so he goes on. He is beloved at the Blues for his wisdom, his guidance and his training ethic. By all accounts he regularly makes unannounced visits to children’s hospital wards in Auckland, and it’s said appearance fees for events he attends are directed straight to charities.
‘Our young players have the ideal role model to look up to if they desire to be successful professionals on the field and good people off it,’ said Blues chief executive Michael Redman.
If only things were so smooth for him these days on the paddock. He has had a long and varied sports career, starting in professional rugby league in the NRL, flitting back and forth a couple of times to rugby union this side of the Tasman and diverting on occasion to indulge his other pursuit of boxing. He has lifted two World Cups with the All Blacks, won Vodacom Super Rugby and NRL championships, and been universally admired for his power, athleticism and game-changing abilities.
But of late his body has betrayed him a little. He ruptured his Achilles at the 2016 Olympics in an ill-fated attempt to add gold in sevens to his collection of baubles. His knees are on borrowed time. He had surgery on one this year and missed most of the Super Rugby season. Last year he made just five appearances for his franchise as he was similarly hobbled.
He made his debut for the All Blacks in 2010, but has made just 51 Test appearances over that time. Sometimes his absence has been of his own volition – back in the NRL or throwing his lot in with sevens – but often it has been enforced by injury.
Some even suggested during his long absence this year that the All Blacks should move on in midfield. They are, after all, awash with form contenders. But, luckily for Williams, coach Steve Hansen was not one of those voices doubting his offloading prince of a centre.
‘I understand why people would say he’s running out of time,’ he said before Williams’ return to action in the final round of Super Rugby. ‘But is he really? He’s already proved himself. He’s played 50-odd Test matches – that’s a lot of Tests, a lot of proving. We need to see him get back on the track, then we’ve got to ask ourselves if his fitness is good enough for him to be selected. We play five Test matches before we name the World Cup team and he deserves the opportunity to show us he’s still good enough.’
Blues coach Leon MacDonald was able to include Williams just a half-dozen times in his match 23 during his first season in charge in Auckland but understands the value the long-armed offloader brings.
‘If you can manage Sonny well – and they’ve got enough depth he’s not going to play every game and every minute – then you’re probably going to get the absolute best out of him. Sonny Bill Williams doesn’t come around every day; he’s a special player, a special person and you can see why Steve is pretty interested in him.’
Williams admits another injury-plagued year has been frustrating, but in no way disenchanting. ‘I put all my faith in Allah, but I also try to be firmly where my feet are,’ he says. ‘That’s all I can do. I’m not the one picking the squads, but I’m the one waking up and being the best me every day, the best teammate I can be, the best father I can be and the best at rehab I can be. It’s all I can do.’
He relates a story he hopes illustrates his mindset. When he was 22 he had his first knee injury and a doctor told him he might not play past 24 or 25. ‘So from an early age my mindset was, “This could be my last year, my last day, my last campaign.” That hasn’t changed. Life is a journey and life is good. It’s about having that balance.’
One Tuesday evening in early July Williams passed his first significant hurdle for 2019, being named in Hansen’s squad of 39 for the first two matches of the Rugby Championship. He has now set his sights on forming part of an exclusive club to have won three straight World Cups. Not bad for a fellow on ‘borrowed time’.