Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Sonny Bill's great switch

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Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams. Photo / Getty Images

Not sure if you noticed it but Sonny Bill Williams, at his Roosters press conference this week, had a face like someone licking cat pee off nettles.

That, more than anything else, has converted me to the point of view that maybe we should bury the hatchet with SBW. I speak as one of the legion of sports fans who have never quite taken him to heart in spite of his outstanding ability; those who never quite got past the way he quit the Bulldogs; his management team's preponderance for one-year contracts (which does not inspire belief in his commitment and which increases the perception that he's only in it for the money) and, oh yes ... the feeling that he's only in it for the money.

Williams was not enjoying himself at his press conference. He is a divisive enough figure here in New Zealand but in Australia, it seems, the division seems only to be whether he is a jerk or a total jerk.

But he fronted up. The Australian media were all over him like pigeons on a dropped chip. But he was there and, with disarming honesty, he said he was only there because he had to be. He discharged his responsibilities and did so in a manner which suggested that he has grown up.

He answered most questions simply, honestly and humbly. The Aussie media didn't like him sidestepping awkward queries like whether he felt he should apologise to Bulldogs supporters for walking out unannounced on the club back in 2008, 48 hours before they were due to play the Dragons, helping to keep the club in a funk which saw them finish bottom of the NRL that year.

Williams chose the tactic of concentrating on the future rather than "negatives". That resulted in some headlines squawking that he had stopped short of apologising to Bulldogs fans, many of whom hold a grudge harder and longer than H Beatty Chadwick, the wealthy American lawyer who went to jail in 1995 for 14 years for contempt of court rather than pay his ex-wife any alimony.

But just a moment. What's this? "It's definitely not the way I should have come out and done things," Williams said. "I was a little bit upset with myself that I didn't apologise to the boys. If I had my time over again, I would have rung every single player in the team. I know a lot of the boys were let down by my actions. At the time, I thought if I did ring some of them, knowing how they were like, knowing how passionate they were about the club, they wouldn't understand, so I thought it's better left unsaid. I'd definitely change that.

"I didn't apologise to the fans [when I walked out] and I guess that's what I want to do. Especially to the Bulldogs fans, the young kids that really looked up to me, I just want to say I'm sorry for all the heartache and the problems I've caused."

Sounds like an apology to me. It was delivered in 2009, on The Footy Show, when he first returned to Australia after his walk-out. Should he apologise every week, maybe?

In case we have forgotten, here's what prompted Williams to go:

He thought his previous deal didn't reflect his 'standing'. He wanted to be consulted on the appointment of new players and the assistant coach. His contract didn't alter for form, inflation or his status as a superstar. He didn't have annual leave, superannuation or fringe benefit tax provisions. His A$400,000 deal didn't leave him with much more than A$200,000 after tax. He didn't like being asked by the Bulldogs to front the media after some off-field issues and say he had "an alcohol problem".

There were rumbles he was miffed after being talked into a long-term contract which undervalued him - but little wonder he got the "Money Bill" nickname. But does he really deserve it still? The sobriquet was plastered all over a photo of Williams when Channel Seven did their piece on him in the news this week. To them, he was still a snotty 22-year-old.

But here's the reality: He is earning at the Roosters about a quarter of what he could be had he stayed with Toulon. He's earning less than if he'd stayed with the Chiefs and All Blacks.

Most of us did a Tui billboard when he said he was returning to league because of a handshake agreement with Roosters chairman Nick Politis. But it seems that is indeed the case.

Okay, he is keeping on his boxing which nets him large sums of money, no doubt keeping the "Money Bill" cynics sipping on their cocktail of furniture polish, lemon juice and envy. But I never minded his boxing nor the money it earned. It was the deadbeat opponents that made it look a rip-off - but he is addressing that by taking on boxers of the ilk of Francois Botha.

He spoke from the heart when asked at the press conference whether he had missed rugby league in his five years away. A lot, he said, when he first went to rugby but he had really enjoyed his time there, playing for "some great teams" - mentioning the All Blacks' World Cup win and the Chiefs' journey to Super Rugby winners this season as "special".

That's tantamount to saying that he'll be back to rugby after his season with the Roosters is over. He didn't say that to a room full of sycophants and fans. It was delivered to a hard-bitten bunch of Aussie journos, some of whom he knew would be writing about him with as much bile as if he'd offered them barbecued wombat with cream of bulldog sauce.

As ever with Sonny Bill, we'll have to wait and see whether he manages to pull off the trifecta of Rugby World Cup, Rugby League World Cup and some kind of crown from boxing's appalling mix of organisations, belts and "world" titles.

He deflected questions about all that but he is a showman - is there any match in either code so anticipated as the Roosters versus the Bulldogs next year? Don't think so.

In a previous column, I wrote that Williams may achieve such goals as the above trifecta but still would not achieve greatness unless he managed to stem the perception that he likes the pay more than the play. He seems well on the way towards that.

- Herald on Sunday

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