Sonny Bill Williams wears the smile of a man rekindling his first true love. His thoughts dwell not on the Rugby World Cup semifinal humbling he suffered with New Zealand three weeks ago, but on his impending and improbable reunion with rugby league. "SBW" is, by any gauge, a sporting polymath of the purest pedigree: he has lifted the Webb Ellis Cup twice, won two national titles in Australia in league, represented his country in sevens at the Rio Olympics, all while somehow becoming the Kiwis' heavyweight boxing champion in only his fifth fight.
It is a stunning body of work, soon to be augmented with his debut for Toronto Wolfpack, in a deal worth NZ $10 million over two years. Such a pay packet, the most lucrative in the sport's history, reflects not just his power as a one-man brand but his role in elevating league's profile in the virgin market of North America. Hopping between codes is a move fraught with danger, given how fiercely the disciples of league and union defend the honour of each. But Williams leaves no doubt, less than a month after forsaking the All Blacks for good, as to where his loyalties lie.
As we sit in a corner of the gilded W Suite at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, where he has just been unveiled as Toronto's marquee signing, I ask which of his achievements give him the deepest satisfaction. "My children," he replies, without hesitation. "Easy. From a sporting point of view? I guess it would have to be the NRL championships that I was a part of – they were a bit more special than anything else. Growing up as a league man, you envisage those moments so much.
"It has been an unbelievable journey to be an All Black. But when I hear some of the boys, like Sammy Cane, talk about the jersey and how much it means to them, I see the same in me when I was young – except that I was dreaming of playing in NRL."
One wonders how that remark will be received in New Zealand, where the All Blacks remain almost a state religion and where any questioning of their primacy is tantamount to heresy. Williams, though, has learnt to deflect criticism. He faced enough of it in union – not least after the second Test against the British and Irish Lions in 2017, when he became the first All Black to be sent off in 50 years – to develop the thickest hide.
"My faith has allowed me to push boundaries and step into the unknown," he says. "But it has also allowed me to be comfortable with the man I look at in the mirror."
When it comes to poaching Williams, Toronto can scarcely believe their luck. In February, they will play their first Super League match as glamorous transatlantic interlopers, and they will do so boasting the most luminous star in the game. "To say it's a monumental day for our franchise is clearly an understatement," gushes chairman Bob Hunter, who wastes no time in equating Williams's stature to that of basketball icon LeBron James.
It is a parallel at which the player himself bristles. "I'm definitely not comfortable with that comparison," Williams says. "I just seek to be me."
In a way, the hyperbolic talk that he can be the LeBron of league undersells him. True, he will, like James, be earning sums exponentially greater than his peers, courtesy of huge investment in the Wolfpack by Australian mining tycoon David Argyle. But Williams is a more multifaceted figure than this picture suggests. For example, he has, after a trouble-plagued early life in Auckland, reached a state of inner peace by embracing Islam.
"It enables me to take a step back and look at my blessings," he explains. "But then it also allows me to be a fierce competitor, to know that my opportunities don't come too often."
Williams could be quite the rogue in his youth: while at Canterbury Bulldogs, he was charged with drink-driving and photographed in a compromising position with a model at Sydney's Clovelly Hotel. In light of his subsequent religious conversion, he often veers today into the language of the born-again. But his sincerity is beyond dispute. Last year, he wrote of feeling so happy and serene that he had tears rolling down his face.
"I just try to do the best I can, bro. Some days I'm an idiot, I'm a d-------, I'm short-tempered. But when I pray with my heart instead of my limbs, the more I can consciously think, 'Look at that less fortunate person.' I'm not saying it's all roses. With mental health, you need to work on it, the same as with your physical health."
Williams was introduced to Islam while staying with a Tunisian family in the south of France, having moved to Toulon in 2008. The parents and their five children all slept together in the lounge. "The solace they had in that household was beautiful," he later observed. "That's when I really started getting into it." Clearly, his commitment has endured. Besides staying in constant contact with his former hosts, he has encouraged family members to follow suit. His mother, Lee, also took the shahada, the profession of faith, after the 2018 massacre at a Christchurch mosque.
"My brother is now a Muslim as well," Williams says. "He saw how good it was for me, how much peace it brought to my life. But it wasn't as if I was holding up the Koran and saying, 'Look, you can't do this.' Do as you wish. I'll love you just as much."
His devoutness is crucial to any appreciation of his motives as he approaches the end of a remarkable career. It helps, in particular, in understanding why he so quickly shrugged off New Zealand's World Cup exit last month. "Yeah, you're cut up because you didn't win," he shrugs. "But my outlook is: shut your mouth, be grateful, and try to be better."
In whatever he attempts, Williams feels as if he is answering a higher calling. And as he prepares to plunge into the alien world of Canadian rugby league, he talks of a "beautiful challenge, because of the doors it can open". It promises, if nothing else, to be one wild ride.