Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Sonny Bill's handshake heartbreak

The All Blacks are convinced Sonny Bill Williams will be back.

It's always a case of wait and see with Williams but the Chiefs and test rugby are both in Williams' blood. While he's putting a brave face on it, the impression is overwhelming that the world's hottest rugby property isn't overjoyed to be heading back to the NRL.

Whether he really is honouring a handshake deal made five years ago, or paying his dues for walking out on the Bulldogs in 2008, Williams would rather be staying where he is. He's made that point in private to the All Black and Chiefs coaching teams and been quite public in his belief that he's found his 'home' in Hamilton.

The sincerity of those claims shouldn't be doubted. The emotion with which Williams played in those final games for the Chiefs was genuine and compelling. He is regularly accused of being in sport just for the money but the evidence this year overwhelmingly points to the contrary.

He's come of age as a rugby player this year, not simply because he's had more time at it. Williams never settled at the Crusaders. The earthquake, in which he lost access to his apartment and all that was in it, threw him emotionally and logistically. But he also found Christchurch a difficult city in which to settle and nor was he universally welcomed by all his team-mates.

He shared a love of gyms, weights and boxing with the Franks brothers and clicked with Israel Dagg. Nothing was said publicly but there was obvious tension between Williams and some of the senior core; that was more obvious when the All Blacks assembled. There was an uneasiness in some quarters that Williams did things differently and attracted a circus wherever he went.

The closest anyone got to talking about it was Graham Henry in the knockout stages of the World Cup, when he said of Williams: "He hasn't played a lot of test match rugby and he's not been in this environment very long. He gets a lot of exposure so there is this huge expectation on him. I guess when you haven't been in the environment very long, other people take notice of that. He's enjoying it and other people have accepted him."

The NRL wasn't an option for Williams this year, as there were still 12 months to run on his ban. Playing rugby in New Zealand was the best deal on the table, so he took it - hoping the Chiefs' move would at least allow him to feel less like an outsider. The shift was inspired and when Williams confirmed privately in late April with All Black management that he would be leaving for Japan and then the NRL, there was massive regret from both parties.

The All Blacks didn't want to lose a player who was only scratching the surface of his incredible potential and they felt that Williams had agreed to a deal he suddenly wished he hadn't; he was content, settled and, for the first time since his earliest days with the Bulldogs, had found an emotional connection with his team.

He forged a close friendship with Liam Messam and had deep respect for the Chiefs coaching team, particularly Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith.

The culture at the Chiefs suited him - he was one of the boys, accepted and clearly liked. Things were close to perfect but for that handshake. The impression abides that the move to Japan and the NRL has been driven more by Williams' agent Khoder Nasser. Williams seems to be semi-reluctant and it's maybe not surprising.

The Roosters, where he's believed to be heading, are 14th of 16 teams. They don't appear contenders in 2013, even with Williams on board.

Before last night's game, Williams only enforced the belief that it is breaking his heart to be on his way.

"Yeah, I have a little bit," he said when asked whether he'd given any thought to how much he might miss being an All Black. "It all hit me when I found out that I wasn't going to be playing in this series. That was the toughest thing.

"But the dream wasn't over when Steve [All Black coach Hansen] gave me a call and said 'a couple more weeks?' But definitely next week when the boys head overseas it will really hit me. But in saying that, who knows what the future holds? Maybe I'll be back one day to try and get back in the mix."

The All Blacks believe it is more than a maybe - that Williams will have less of a financial imperative by the end of 2013, as he's reportedly going to net in excess of $2 million for his football commitments, plus almost the same again for his boxing bout this November.

Everyone is hoping that the lure of being back with the Chiefs in 2014 and then part of an All Black squad that defends the World Cup will be too hard to resist.

Williams appears already sold on the idea - it's now just a case of whether Nasser can be convinced.

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 22 Dec 2014 10:18:27 Processing Time: 408ms