Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Sonny Bill - Perfect poster boy for the 'Me' generation

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Sonny Bill Williams will be spectacularly good at driving teenage interest in rugby - even if he himself could be leaving the sport at the end of the year. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams will be spectacularly good at driving teenage interest in rugby - even if he himself could be leaving the sport at the end of the year. Photo / Getty Images

It is part madness, part inspired that the New Zealand Rugby Union have asked Sonny Bill Williams to be an ambassador for teenagers. Williams is the man they have chosen to head into secondary schools across the country and be the man to engage teenagers playing or wanting to play rugby.

On one level that makes enormous sense. Williams makes an instant impression wherever he goes with his physical presence alone. He's not the sort of person kids can easily forget.

He is the perfect poster boy for Generation Y - having shown the most astonishing sense of entitlement when he walked out on the Bulldogs in 2008. A contract in his world wasn't binding if it turned out he could actually get a better deal somewhere else. And isn't that the unofficial mantra of Generation 'Me' - 'Want everything and commit to nothing'?

Williams will be spectacularly good at driving teenage interest in rugby. As well as his obvious aesthetic appeal, he actually presents superbly in his public engagements.

Rarely does he get the credit for remaining super polite and good humoured on those occasions when the public are able to get their piece of him.

But the risk for the NZRU is that Williams will be way more compelling than the sport he is selling. Williams can cast a hypnotic spell. He'll engage teenagers all right but what will happen should he depart to the NRL late this year?

No one other than Williams and his advisors know for certain what his intentions are in 2013, but there is a weight of evidence that creates reasonable doubt he'll be playing rugby. It's a professional hazard of top flight football that there will be speculation and rumour - with Williams, supposedly, all but committed to joining the Roosters next season.

Definitely true is that Williams is off contract with the NZRU at the end of this year and is suitably cagey about his plans. Because of that uncertainty should he have been asked to be an ambassador? Isn't it likely, maybe even probable, that the NRL are delighted to see Williams in such a role with the NZRU?

Will they be sitting back, just waiting for hundreds, maybe even thousands of kids to switch their allegiance to rugby league if and probably when Williams jumps codes again?

It's not a question of ethics or any suggestion Williams isn't anything other than sincere in his role. But the reality is that kids engage with superstars. They will fall for Williams more than they will fall for rugby and wherever he goes, they will follow.

For the moment, that's a risk the NZRU is prepared to take because they can't second guess what Williams will do. They will back themselves to persuade him to sign on for longer and ward off the looming threat of the NRL.

That's going to be a big ask although they can be comforted by knowing that while they have taken a major risk with Williams, they could potentially benefit from a major reward if he stays.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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