Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Time in the ring will be the thing

It is estimated Sonny Bill Williams earns up to $1 million a year from boxing. Photo / Getty Images
It is estimated Sonny Bill Williams earns up to $1 million a year from boxing. Photo / Getty Images

The last vestiges of league have been drummed out of Sonny Bill Williams and the Chiefs midfielder is in the best form of his rugby life, giving hope that his future may lie in Hamilton.

Rumours of his imminent departure to the NRL have cooled, an extended run in the June tests beckons and Williams may now be hooked on life with the high-flying Chiefs.

It's never simple with Williams, though. He's content and settled but his management team continually scour the world for his next move.

The Roosters, and other NRL clubs, are reportedly keen. A major offer has been tabled by Japanese rugby club the Wild Knights - apparently over $1.5 million for a two-year stint - and supposedly European and even South African rugby interests are circling.

The Chiefs have tabled their offer in conjunction with the New Zealand Rugby Union and, like the polar bear waiting by the hole in the ice, all they can do is sit and wait. And hope.

"We have put our best foot forward," says Chiefs chief executive Gary Dawson. "We would like him to stay and not just for what he does on the field. But Sonny is a valuable commodity and he is in high demand. We are not confident but he certainly enjoys being here and is playing well. We don't know where we sit in his thinking but we are an option for him."

Williams is in no rush to commit to anything, and much like last year when he held off making a decision about 2012 until the last possible day, the same is expected again.

Although the Chiefs say they are not confident, they are aware that their position is stronger than it perhaps looks. The retention of Wayne Smith as technical director for at least another season is a bonus. Smith has been a mentor to Williams since the former All Black assistant made an unscheduled visit to Toulon in 2009. Smith laid out the vision the All Blacks had for Williams and planted the idea of the 26-year-old returning to New Zealand in 2010. They have become closer since, working well together in the All Blacks in 2010-11 and now the Chiefs.

Smith's presence and the astute analysis of head coach Dave Rennie has enabled Williams to become a supremely effective player at second five. He has more variation to his game now, takes on defences more readily and is a destructive defender.

"He is playing superb football," says Rennie of Williams. "He is incredibly professional, so diligent when it comes to reviewing his game and willing to listen and learn. We have really simplified the things he is required to do for us. He has a really good feel now for when the offload is on and part of the thing around that is that he's more willing to carry now and create gainline for us."

The fact the Chiefs are now in position to challenge for the title is also helpful. Williams wants to win things, be part of successful teams. What excites about the Chiefs is that they may be building something with longevity.

Rennie and Smith are legacy builders, something that will be hard for Williams to walk away from. But probably the key to his future is his ability to box.

That will be the deal clincher. It's estimated his boxing is worth about $1 million a year to him. If he can't do it - and there are suggestions that none of the interested NRL clubs chasing him will be keen to sanction bouts - then it would be a huge call for him to head back to league.

It's not just the loss of income - he also wants to be the greatest cross-code athlete on the planet and one day the heavyweight champion of the world. The other attraction of boxing is that he should be able to do it long after he's deemed too old to play any football code.

By then, if he's managed well, he could be earning serious money for just one fight.

Williams doesn't do long-term contracts but the Chiefs will consider it a major victory if they can hold on to him for another year.

"We [Chiefs coaching team] have sat down with Sonny and without applying any pressure on him ... and have said we need to know if he's staying," says Rennie. "I'm not in a position to divulge what he said but at the end of it we always knew that we would have him for one year and he is pretty happy with how things are going, as are we."

- Herald on Sunday

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