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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Prodigal Sonny merely making most of his gifts

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Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Brett Phibbs

We admire individuals who march to the beat of a different drum, except when they are living our dream. To paraphrase the 19th century Irish anti-war song: "Goodbye Sonny, we hardly knew ye."

Despite two years in the public eye and under the media microscope, Sonny Bill Williams remains as much of an enigma as when he made his uncharacteristically low-key entrance to New Zealand rugby via the Christchurch club scene.

At the press conference held just to confirm what was already public knowledge, he made a couple of off-loads that no one saw coming while revealing little of his inner self beyond a rather endearing touch of stage-fright.

Polarising public opinion is what celebrities do, but Williams does it more than most. He personifies the unresolved tension between old and new, between rugby's traditional support base and the diverse, youthful demographic targeted by those who market and sponsor the game, between the myth and romance of All Black history (often, it must be said, viewed through rose-tinted spectacles) and the self-interest and commercialism of 21st century professional sport.

Thus "good riddance" is a common reaction to his imminent departure. Britain's Daily Mail would have spoken for many Kiwis when it declared that "few players in the 107-year history of the world's most successful rugby team have earned a jersey more easily or tossed it away more casually."

Well, just off the top of my head ... Southland loose forward Ash McGregor was so surplus to requirements on his one and only tour that he played in just three of the 18 games. South African Greg Rawlinson arrived here as a 24-year-old and, having enhanced his CV and market value with four All Black appearances, took off for greener pastures.

Then there was the 1995 World Cup squad (minus a couple of notable exceptions) led by the iconic Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke who came within a whisker of defecting to an Aussie entrepreneur's three ring circus. The NZRU begged, pleaded and reminded them of their responsibility to the All Black legacy and the fans, but it was truckloads of money that finally did the trick.

Williams is the eighth member of last year's World Cup squad to have gone overseas or announced their departure. (Having lived in Sydney from the age of 16 to 23, perhaps he feels at home across the Tasman like 483,000 other Kiwis. Another 170,000-odd, including the aforementioned Fitzy and Zinny, live even further afield.)

The unpalatable truth is that tossing away the black jersey comes almost as naturally to some of our players as good body position at the breakdown. Luke McAlister has done it twice, and neither Carl Hayman nor Nick Evans could be lured out of hard currency exile to help get the World Cup monkey off our backs.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that much of the antipathy towards Williams stems from resentment of the very good hand life has dealt him. And, as is usually the case, those who are quick to hate are correspondingly slow to think.

Thus Williams is vilified for boxing on the side, even though he was merely exercising his contractual right. If you have to blame someone - and clearly the talkback mob has a deep psychological need for scapegoats - blame the NZRU for agreeing to it. His pugilistic endeavours are routinely dismissed as not worth taking seriously, which seems a bit rich given the freak show that boxing in this country is becoming.

The fact that he won the New Zealand heavyweight championship with barely a glove laid on him and made a lot of money ($100,000 of which went to the Christchurch earthquake appeal) in the process must be hard to stomach for those who live in anticipation of seeing the show pony come a cropper.

Hence the bile.

Williams is a different animal to any we've seen before. The great rugby players, the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, simply don't have as many strings to their bows or, therefore, options. The upside for them is a place in the pantheon and the opportunity, if they so desire, to live off their glory days once they retire.

Williams has chosen a different, riskier path. We admire individuals who march to the beat of a different drum, except when they are living our dream.

Then we expect them to stick to the script.

Wherever Williams' supposedly mercenary instincts take him, he's unlikely to end up like the young Irishman who returns from soldiering for the British East India Company a shadow of his former self: "Ye haven't an arm, ye haven't a leg; ye're an armless, boneless, chickenless egg; ye'll have to be put out with a bowl to beg. Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye."

- NZ Herald

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