Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Doubts come home to roost

Sonny Bill Williams' Roosters are in turmoil. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams' Roosters are in turmoil. Photo / Getty Images

A penny for Sonny Bill Williams' thoughts as he watches the All Blacks climb to greater heights while more ructions beset the Sydney Roosters - the NRL club he's believed to be joining in 2013.

Williams still hasn't confirmed where he will be playing next year, other than to say: "It's a done deal. I made it a long time ago. I know where I'm playing next year and I'm ready to meet the challenge head-on."

The secrecy is believed to be because salary cap restraints mean if he signs with the Roosters before he's finished playing rugby in Japan, income earned there will be counted in the Sydney club's cap.

As is widely known, Williams is joining the Roosters on the strength of a handshake deal he made with chairman Nick Politis five years ago. But the strength of that agreement must surely have been tested in the last few weeks. The Roosters, having finished 13th this season, are a club in flux.

Last week they had a change of chief executive. Out went Steve Noyce and in came Brian Canavan - the experienced former boss of the Roosters. It was a change the board felt they had to make following a year in which they axed coach Brian Smith in favour of Trent Robinson. Williams wouldn't be human if wasn't having second thoughts.

Might he now be feeling the cold pang of regret? Might he now fully realise the All Blacks are not the sort of team you can let in and out of your heart without a second thought?

Reality may be dawning on him that the grass is not always greener - that the emotional contentment and sense of belonging he had with the Chiefs and All Blacks was worth more than he, or maybe more aptly, his management team, fully realised.

But the New Zealand Rugby Union say they are not in fresh talks with Williams about a return in 2013.

The offshore rugby market is devoid of any whispers of a late change of heart and it would seem that Williams is indeed ready to lie in the cold, hard bed he has made for himself.

The Roosters have new faces in key positions - that's both exciting and daunting. They could be on their way up or ready for a prolonged period of volatility as the new arrivals try to find their feet and live with the pressure of expectation.

For Williams the challenge will be tougher again as he's in possession of a legacy others in the NRL will be keen to dismantle. How many opposition pre-match team talks will focus on the need to shut down Williams? How many frothing goons will fancy they can make themselves a hero for the day if they can clobber the man who once failed to show the game the respect it deserved?

Williams, an athlete very much at the top of the food chain, will have to contend with the unusual feeling of being hunted. It will be character-building - a definite season of penance for his previous crime of walking out on the Bulldogs. Buried within him might be this little stab of regret that he's with a mid-size NRL club in the midst of a rebuilding phase, rather than the defending champion Chiefs.

A bigger question still, is how much will he miss the cut and thrust of test rugby. When he's in Canberra on an icy June night playing in front of 12,000 people, how will he feel seeing the All Blacks locked in a three-test series against France - the stadiums full, the nation gripped?

The Roosters are full of ambition but the scale of what they offer is simply not comparable with what Williams had in New Zealand this year. The All Blacks have burst through a glass ceiling of sorts since this time last year. Winning the World Cup loosened a cork rammed in way too tight.

A brand that was already huge has become bigger again - with AIG's commitment irrefutable proof of that. The US giants only back the biggest - hence their previous association with Manchester United - and their recently struck sponsorship deal wouldn't have been signed without the added lure of the All Blacks being world champions.

These are heady days for the national team while the Roosters are gripped with uncertainty. Williams probably didn't make a great choice but it is at least a choice he seems fully committed to seeing through.

- Herald on Sunday

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