Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Sonny Bill Williams good but not Brad

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It's a funny thing but, just lately, we've stopped hearing that Sonny Bill Williams wants to be the world's best cross-code athlete.

In the same week, we've also heard that crucial Argentine rugby pivot, Felipe Contepomi, has opted out of the Rugby Championship because of his French club, Stade Francais. There is the suspicion that the club have twisted his arm to forgo his international obligations in favour of his French paymasters.

That's what's wrong with professional rugby - at this stage of its evolution anyway: too much player power; too much dallying with the dollars.

Speaking of which, Sonny Bill, as the rumours have it, is off to Japan for a "sabbatical", followed by a return to the NRL, maybe a tilt at the Rugby League World Cup next year and then a possible return to New Zealand and rugby union in time for the Rugby World Cup of 2015.

In one sense - a purely opportunistic, selfish and money-gathering sense - you can't blame him. Maybe many among us would do the same thing if we were blessed with Williams' athletic ability.

But at least we are now being spared the line that Williams wants to be the greatest cross-code athlete in history. It's clearly all about the money. If it wasn't, you'd think we'd be hearing that Williams is re-signing with the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby, or at least not continuing his steady diet of one-year contracts - no lasting commitment, no sureties, where options are always open, even if his intentions aren't.

Most of us can live with the fact that the old loyalties are dying fast; that an All Black jersey may not be held in quite the same sacrosanct regard as past years; we know the professional realities of life have protruded rudely on to the old shrine of amateurism, pride in your country and all that.

Some of us wanted to believe that Sonny Bill wasn't, as he was labelled by Australian media at the time, "Money Bill" - the man who left the Bulldogs in the lurch when he couldn't get what he wanted; he left without a backward glance. The greatest cross-code athlete (rugby union, rugby league and boxing) at least appeared a credible goal, a plausible explanation for what was otherwise perplexing behaviour.

But there are two words that predicate against SBW being the Cross-Code King - Brad and Thorn.

The former Broncos, Kangaroos, Canterbury, Crusaders and All Black forward has done way more than Williams in those terms. Look at his CV: a Rugby World Cup, four NRL premiership titles, a winning State of Origin series with Queensland, a Tri Nations title, NPC championships in New Zealand and a 2008 Super Rugby title with the Crusaders (becoming only the second man to win NRL and Super Rugby crowns; the first was Peter Ryan, the Broncos and Brumbies forward).

Thorn also won the Heineken Cup with Leinster this year, making him the only man to have an NRL-Super Rugby-European Cup trifecta. The only thing missing is a Rugby League World Cup.

Williams has won one NRL title, a Rugby World Cup, in which he played a bit part, and possibly a Super Rugby title this year if the Chiefs can do the business. Then there's the possibility of an inaugural Rugby Championship crown against Australia, South Africa and Argentina, though the smart money seems to be on Williams not taking part and the re-emergence of Ma'a Nonu.

Boxing? Don't make me laugh. Thorn could probably have dealt with all of Sonny Bill's pat-a-cake opponents at once, with one arm tied behind his back, a wedgie in his shorts, a parrot on his shoulder and with his headband on fire.

Then there's the question of class. Thorn is, lest we forget, the man who turned down an All Black jersey in 2001 because he didn't feel ready, because he hadn't quite mastered the 15-man code yet. Somehow you can't quite see SBW doing that.

It's what is missing from the Sonny Bill portfolio - mana. He is a brilliant player in either code, no question; he is hugely enjoyable to watch.

But one of the greats? Not in either code, not yet, and you'd figure never if he doesn't stay in one place for longer than his seemingly mandatory one year contract.

Greatness isn't just what you win and certainly not what revenue you secure. Greatness is about achievement, yes, longevity and loyalty but, more than that, it is about enhancing the sport, connecting with the fans and bringing more to the sport than it brings to you. Sonny Bill falls short on two of the last three counts.

He tries hard, he interviews well and seems to mean well, too. But he distances himself from us with those one-year contracts and his sudden shifts; he never stays long enough in one place to convince us that his heart is in it as much as his wallet. Thorn changed codes several times - from league to union, back to league and then back to union - but no one ever doubted his motivation.

His clear incentive was achievement, not acquisition of funds.

Thorn spoke with actions; Sonny Bill largely talks to us through his management team. The ridiculous claptrap that the NZRU and others know what he is doing in the immediate future but the fans don't is a splendid example of this kind of dislocation.

As for Contepomi, what a shame that one of the premier figures of Argentine rugby has tarnished that greatness by opting for a holiday and then pre-season training with his club rather than being a central part of a new international presence that should ensure the rise and rise of Pumas rugby.

It remains to be seen whether other Pumas are also nobbled and whether Argentina's much-anticipated entry into a bona fide international competition is undone by self-interest and greed.

The IRB might need to grow some real cojones if they are to control this; if other Pumas are not to bow to the paymaster rather than the principle. It's too late for Contepomi - he could be remembered now as "Fingers" Felipe (for the gesture he has given his country and international rugby) or (in a money-hungry sense) "Count" Contepomi.

Give or take a vowel.

- Herald on Sunday

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