Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Sonny Bill's loves make him complete

Homecoming sports hero settles down to rugby and family.

Sonny Bill Williams' sporting odyssey has finally brought him back to Auckland. The boy from Mt Albert has come home to finish a career that until recently never seemed remotely likely to end where it all began.

Williams, who turns 31 in August, has signed a contract giving the All Blacks and the Blues the last of his football years. And maybe, the best of his football years.

Inevitably, because there are those who stay staunchly dismissive of his obvious talents, such a claim will be met with scepticism. There's also the weight of evidence throughout sporting history that shows homecoming heroes don't always fulfil expectation.

Williams, having left for Sydney in his teens, appeared determined to globe trot around the world and keep Auckland, the city he's always called home, off his career path.

With so many sporting goals, he was going to hop from team-to-team and would he ever have felt right if Auckland - through the Warriors or Blues - were one of his short term visitations?

Obviously he didn't. Until now. And the fact he has made, for him, such a significant commitment is all down to one thing - he's finally ready. Auckland is where he wants to be - it's right for his family, his life and his rugby.

Williams is almost unrecognisable from the man he was when he first came to play rugby in New Zealand. Back then, as he admits, he had little idea what he was doing.

He was dabbling - giving rugby a try because he was determined to give just about everything a try. It never quite felt that his soul was fully in it and as he revealed during the week, it was at the 2015 World Cup when he finally began to understand what he was and what the All Blacks meant to him.

"I grew up as a league boy. I'm not going to lie I always wanted to play for the Kiwis," he said. "But now [rugby] this is where my path is and it's an amazing feeling to be part of such a high quality team.

"I must admit when I first came back I didn't really know too much about what it means to be an All Black. Now I do. I consider myself a rugby player and I just love the environment."

Williams knew as soon as the World Cup ended that he didn't want to play anywhere else other than New Zealand. He's found in the All Blacks, the team that connects best with him and with NRL titles, Kiwis caps, a charge at the Olympics, a stint in France, one in Japan and two Rugby World Cups behind him, he's not really got many boxes left to tick.

He knew that after he'd had a crack at sevens, that he wanted to get straight back into the All Blacks and he would feel the same way the year after and the year after.

So he knew he was ready to sign up for the long term. And while he had respect and loyalty for the Chiefs, there were more compelling factors pushing him towards Auckland.

He's found in marriage and fatherhood a stabilising force that pervades into his sporting life and he doesn't want to compartmentalise his life for the simple reason that no one does. He's not Williams the rugby player and Williams the father and husband. He's all three things all the time and he can best be himself if he's based in Auckland, with his family and playing for the Blues.

It feels like Williams has given himself the certainty and stability to take his game to new levels. Happy athletes tend to play better.

Players who have an emotional connection to the jersey tend to give more and it also has to be remembered that Williams has never really given himself an extended run at rugby.

He's been in and out, in and out and living it, breathing it and knowing that he's not going anywhere else ... it has to increase the likelihood of him maturing into a consistent performer.

On the day he announced his plans, he oozed contentment and spoke with an honesty and clarity. It alluded to why Hansen has elevated Williams to the All Blacks leadership group and why the Blues were determined to sign him.

Coach Tana Umaga was in charge of Toulon when Williams washed up there in 2008 and he saw a young man with an incredible work ethic.

"His professionalism in terms of his attitude to training hasn't changed," says Umaga. "That's what has got him to where he is ... it hasn't just happened by luck or by freakish talent. It is something that he works hard at. The biggest thing you notice about him is his work ethic and willingness to get better.

"He came in [to Toulon] and wanted to watch footage of games. He would also come through and ask what he should be doing. He never missed any of his rehabs when he had injuries. He never missed a day.

"On days when he had promos and other obligations ... at 11 o'clock at night he got his dad to drive him down to the local park with the headlights on. That's why he is what he is and why you get a deeper understanding how motivated he is to be the best he can be."

His influence on the Blues could be substantial. Certainly welcome as many of their players are cursed with talent, but not always the drive, ethics and professionalism. Watching Williams relentlessly hunt for the tiniest advantage should help sell the message that greatness is earned.

"He will be great for our younger players,"says Umaga. "First and foremost he is here to play - that is why we have got him. He'll bring a lot to us on the field and we will utilise all those ethic things off the field. We will build that kind of culture within our players. If they see someone who many perceive as the best at what he does, if he can do it then there are no excuses why no one else can."

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- NZ Herald

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