48 hours: Sonny Bill - the future and a reminder of league's follies

By Chris Rattue

Sonny Bill Williams is leading the way in promising a bright future for New Zealand rugby league, as a billboard for the game and a star in the national side. But he also represents the follies of our rugby league past.

It is hard to remember a player - and certainly a New Zealander - inspiring quite the hype that surrounds the Auckland-raised, part-Samoan, Williams.

The Australian press has leapt all over the 19-year-old Canterbury Bulldogs forward for two good reasons. Firstly, he is that good. And secondly, rugby league desperately needs a Sonny Bill Williams.

Tainted by bad player behaviour, struggling to match the nationwide interest in Rules, and finding its own players departing to help rugby cast a shadow over rugby league, the game needs fresh new heroes. And they've certainly found one.

Williams lived up to the hype in the first 32 minutes of the Bulldogs' opening NRL match against St George on Friday night, before he departed with an ankle injury.

The 100kg-plus forward offloaded a remarkable four times in the first four minutes.

He'd totalled six within the first quarter hour. When Sonny Bill was on, St George were off. Aided also by the loss of Dogs prop Mark O'Meley, St George's futile comeback flourished for a while because Williams didn't come back.

Williams plays with an exuberance and obvious love of the game that is infectious. Twice, when he rampaged towards the St George line, three defenders clung on as he almost broke free, the crowd roaring.

The crowning moment came from his favourite in and out move, as he bamboozled retreating defenders then engulfed a St George player while slinging a pass around this unfortunate's back to send Braith Anasta to the tryline.

The great Peter Sterling, who is not one to gush, gushed.

"He makes the difficult look easy," commentator Sterling called.

Coaching legend Phil Gould, who first made his name at the Bulldogs, reckoned: "His opening 10 minutes have been absolutely explosive ... you are looking at a superstar, folks."

And this superstar is ours, almost. He wears the black and white of the Kiwis, but not the black and silver of the Warriors.

How on earth did this happen?

The answer is fairly simple. During the troubled times of various Warriors managements, reserve grade coach and scout John Ackland was let go.

Ackland - a dry-humoured character - is not one to shout the odds from the tree tops. But the fact is that his departure from the Warriors was a monumental error.
Today's management has addressed it by bringing Ackland, a Kiwi in 1983, back. Ackland's heart beats rugby league, whether it is in nurturing the careers and welfare of youngsters or in coaching the Mt Albert seniors. He also has the best nose and network for finding talent, which he put to work for the Canterbury Bulldogs, who are tracker dogs in sniffing out quality.

During this time, about four years ago, Ackland signed Williams to the Bulldogs.

The deed was supposed to be done at Ackland's house but Sonny Bill's mother, Lee, turned up to say the Mt Albert Grammar pupil had not returned from school yet. So Ackland headed off in the peak-hour traffic to Sonny Bill's home suburb.

Williams turned up and put pen to paper on the bonnet of Ackland's 1988 Nissan Sentra.

"It was in Victor St, Avondale," recalls Ackland, adding detail to the lore.

"I remember afterwards that Sonny Bill's grandmother said I looked like my father."

This hints at the close bonds that exist in Auckland rugby league, a telling and remarkable aspect of the Warriors' failure to sign Williams.

Names like Ropati, Ackland, Cooper, O'Regan, McClennan and Bell lay at the heart of the game in Auckland. If you tried to draw a family tree, it would end up being a tangled web through the playing links, marriages etc that bind them.

Sonny Bill Williams also comes from this rugby league core, where talent and knowledge lies. His late grandfather, Bill Woolsey, was a renowned club prop, and the family is steeped in the game. His playing instincts have been well learned, as they were for Stacey Jones - another to emerge from this sort of past.

As a kid, Ackland played alongside Sonny Bill's father, Johnny, who was the star of Ponsonby under-six to under-14 teams. Ackland's father, Jim, and uncle, Ron, the great Kiwi, played alongside Sonny Bill's grandfather and great-uncle.

Somehow, out of all of this, the Bulldogs in Sydney have ended up with league's brightest star. The Warriors have been remiss, foolish, in not stirring this Auckland rugby league heartland.

There is, though, maybe an even more important question surrounding the emergence of Sonny Bill Williams.

Had he ended up in the Warriors, what would have been the outcome? The Warriors have burned some of the bright lights they did secure, and have a poor record in developing talent that lasts.

What stands out about the Bulldogs is that they have nurtured Williams, easing him through the grades, making sure he was right for the big time, so that he plays like a seasoned pro.

Even rival coaches such as Nathan Brown and John Lang have suggested he would have had more than 16 first-grade games at their clubs.

The Bulldogs are widely admired for their restraint with Williams. They have been through these things before. In their hands, Sonny Bill is tramping on familiar ground. In contrast, too many young Warriors have been launched too quickly.

The Auckland club suffers in not having the quality and quantity of Australian grade systems.

But Ackland, for one, argues stoutly that good development opportunities lie here, and believes the Bartercard Cup might be starting to get the respect it deserves in this.

It has, after all, launched unheralded players like Vinnie Anderson (ex-Warriors), George Carmont (Newcastle), Hutch Maiava (Cronulla), Tame Tupou (Brisbane) and David Fa'alogo (Souths) into NRL teams.

For now, Warriors fans, we can only wait and hope that others who fit Sonny's bill will emerge and remain on our doorstep.

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