Graham Lowe: Sonny and Bill

COMMENT

Back in the late 1950s and 60s, league in Auckland was not only incredibly popular, it was also about as close to the Wild West as you could get on a weekend without actually pulling on the boots and spurs and tooling up with a pair of Colt 45s.

Maybe it was because I was just a young bloke at the time, but somehow the game in those days seemed to be full of genuine characters, rogues and uncompromisingly hard men. A few shillings at the Carlaw Park gate guaranteed a hot pie, cold soft drink and, invariably, at least one bloody good all-in brawl in the middle of some scintillating football.

Rumours were rife about some of the tricks of the trade of the old stagers. One suggested a well-known forward actually strapped an iron bar to his forearm to dispense rough justice. Another involved a prop taking the field with a handful of stinging liniment which was liberally applied to an opponent's eyes in the first scrum.

More obviously, the Carlaw Park coathanger was popularised by defenders as an early anaesthetic for dangerous opposition runners. And the long, looping right hand uppercut from the second row into an opposing scrum kept the stretcher-bearers busy during a hard-fought club season.

Even the legendary eagle-eyed referee John Percival was left wondering at times whether something had fallen from the sky to knock a player senseless during a scrum.

In this environment, one of the toughest of the multitude of tough players was a powerfully built, craggy faced character by the name of Bill Woolsey. A former boxer, Woolsey was never backward in his role as an enforcer in the City Newton front row and was a legend of more than one riotous after-match function. He epitomised everything about the league hardmen of the time.

Woolsey played top club football well into his 40s (brother Gene was a talented regular Auckland representative in the days when they were unbeatable, even against international touring sides). Towards the twilight of his career, Bill used a rubber inner tube to support snapped tendons at the bottom of a stuffed calf muscle.

Sadly, Bill Woolsey died some six months ago in Auckland. This weekend, he should have been sitting at Telstra Stadium with his family, enjoying the proudest day of his life.

Because this Sunday will mark the emergence of possibly the greatest talent New Zealand rugby league has ever produced. Bill Woolsey's grandson, Bulldogs second-rower Sonny Bill Williams, will take the biggest stage of his still-fledgling career in his first NRL grand final appearance.

During my coaching career, I was fortunate to have guided three of the best players of all time - Mark Graham, Ellery Hanley and Wally Lewis. I do not say it lightly, but I think Williams will turn out to be better than each of them.

Williams, who has just turned 19, has already received numerous accolades. Canberra Raiders great Laurie Daley has been really impressed by his talent and is in no doubt he will be New Zealand's greatest. Steeped in Kiwi league pride and history, Sonny Bill has the world at his feet, provided he is properly managed and avoids serious injury.

While it's a great shame the Warriors were too slow to move on Williams (ironically allowing that astute judge of potential, John Ackland, to shepherd him to the Bulldogs at a time when Ackland was out of favour with the Warriors), Sonny Bill couldn't be at a better club to nurture his talent.

Williams is off contract at year's end, but I will put my house on the certainty of the Dogs re-signing him for a long period. In Williams and his former Marist Auckland clubmate Roy Asotasi they have the foundations of a premiership dynasty.

The good news for New Zealand is that Williams will wear a Kiwi jersey for many years to come. And such is his ability and potential influence on a team, that he could almost single-handedly turn the balance of superiority away from the Kangaroos and towards the Kiwis.

Last weekend undoubtedly produced the best two teams of the year as grand finalists, vindicating the controversial McIntyre playoffs system. While it can be said that both the Bulldogs and the Roosters are from ghettos of greed, in that they are the best teams money can buy, they use their resources well.

I wasn't surprised to see a bit of biff last Sunday, because it underlines the desperation and intensity that this time of the season requires. But the Bulldogs play such a physical game, it is hard to see the Roosters putting on a blue early as they obviously planned to do against the Cowboys.

I admired the way the inexperienced Cowboys did not allow it to put them off their game. And the fans got more than their money's worth.

In one of the most exciting and talent-filled NRL seasons I can remember, I can only reflect on how poorly New Zealand league fans are served by the country's self-proclaimed king of sports broadcasting, Murray Deaker.

Deaker has used the poor performances this year of the Warriors as an excuse to effectively turn off the tap of authoritative and incisive league coverage on the acres of broadcasting time he mysteriously continues to occupy.

He refuses to concede that league is much more than just the Warriors.

The NRL semifinals have presented football of quality, intensity, skill and excitement, yet Deaker lacks both the capability or desire (or both) to do the competition justice in New Zealand.


League fans deserve better than the odd matey spruiker indulging Deaker's ignorance of the game.

I' M convinced the Dogs are destined to do a victory lap on Sunday evening because they've overcome adversity and let their performances on the field do the talking.

They were severely (and rightly so) dealt to by the NRL in 2002 when they lost all their points after breaching the salary cap.

I can't see them falling at the last hurdle this time.

And they also have Sonny Bill Williams.

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