A new unauthorised biography of the polarising sports star by reporter and former league player Paul Kent details the rift with ex-All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry and reveals a story of controversy, changing loyalties and damned hard work. This is an edited extract.
Because of the looming Rugby World Cup, the Bledisloe Cup was played over just two tests in 2011. The All Blacks had two more tests against South Africa. Effectively, they were warm-up games. And they were nearly the end of Sonny Bill Williams as a rugby player.
Williams made his test debut on home soil against South Africa on July 30, coming off the bench late in a performance where he appeared oddly nervous. At one point he tried to do up his laces as a scrum was packing down. Then he lost the ball in a tackle, turning it over.
In what was a comprehensive 40-7 All Blacks win, the turnover was one of the few chances the Springboks got. Still, all this before he ended it in trademark way, a one-handed offload that led to a try.
For the first Bledisloe Cup Test against Australia, coach Graham Henry picked as close to a full-strength line-up as he could. Henry, if you had given him the choice, would have been more than happy to send this 15 on as his starting line-up in any World Cup final. As he had against South Africa, Henry went with Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith as his centre combination.
Henry was banking on experience to get the All Blacks through the World Cup. It was his best chance against years of underperformance and the near overwhelming expectation they faced playing this World Cup on home turf. Everybody expected them to win, simple as that. So Henry picked what was the oldest test side in the history of the All Blacks.
Certainly Williams was unhappy at how he was being treated. After Henry again decided to give him just a few minutes towards the end of the test against Australia, a 30-14 win in Auckland that retained the Bledisloe Cup, Williams was in no mood to celebrate with teammates.
He headed back to the hotel where [manager] Khoder Nasser was staying with [adviser] Anthony Mundine and [Wallabies player] Quade Cooper. Williams turned up in his socks and shorts. That was as good an indication as any at how angry he was. "F*** him, bro," Mundine said about the coach, Henry.
"Let's get on a plane. Let's go shopping in LA. You need some new clothes. He's got the world's best player in his team and he leaves him on the bench. Who the f*** does he think he is?"
Mundine pulled out his mobile phone. "I'll book the tickets now, bro, we can be on a plane in the morning." Nobody, it seemed, was doing anything to calm Williams. Or Mundine, for that matter.
Williams felt used. His one stipulation when he returned to New Zealand was that he would be picked if his form warranted it. Most agreed he was the standout inside centre during the Super Rugby season and yet Henry decided to go with Nonu against South Africa and Australia.
The easy thing to consider is what would have become of him if he had got on that plane. Had he walked out on the NRL team that developed him and the rugby team considered the pinnacle of the sport, would there be anywhere to go?
The answer is: of course. Somebody was always willing to pay.
Williams would later admit he felt "lied to". His Super Rugby form warranted selection. That Henry preferred to remain loyal was, apparently, less important, or that he believed players like Nonu provided more flexibility, as he said, also did not seem to matter. Sonny always tried so hard to stay true to the core values of the team. This was one of the few times the mask slipped.
Williams missed the 2012 pre-season games with the Chiefs but it hardly mattered. Almost immediately, Williams' impact was felt. It started like it always does, with a professional at work. Arriving at training early, staying late, and working on all those little one per centers he so firmly believed in. Teammates can't help but be influenced by it.
His agent Nasser always told him: play well and the rest will take care of itself and Williams was proving that every day. The Chiefs went on a tear, winning their next nine games to take them to the competition lead. It was clear they were the real deal and Williams was emerging as a force in the team.
While many privately speculated he was upset with his lack of involvement in the World Cup, Williams used it as a tool to spur him on rather than sulk. [Williams won a World Cup medal but mainly played off the bench.] Driving everything he did with the Chiefs were performances built around high energy, high involvement.
Eventually they would finish the season in second place, winning the New Zealand conference.
In round nine, though, the conversation around Williams and his superb form began to change. The Sydney Morning Herald's Brad Walter, with his close contacts to the Williams camp, revealed in his Friday column that Williams had attracted interest from Japanese rugby and could also feature in a fight in South Africa at the end of the year. The next day Walter upgraded the story from a paragraph in a gossip column to a fully substantiated story.
"Panasonic is interested in getting Sonny Bill Williams and has made an offer to him," Hitoshi Iijima told Walter. Iijima was general manager of the Panasonic Wild Knights in the Japanese Top League. They finished runners-up the season before.
"We will offer two years and we will offer the best offer of the company because he is the best player. It will be the top offer by our company."
Panasonic was offering A$1.2 million for 12 games. On a pro rata basis, it was almost three times what anybody could pay in the NRL. And Japanese rugby was a long way from the grind of NRL football.
Iijima had no concerns that Williams would provide value for money . "He is very famous in Japan and if he was to play in Japan we believe many non-rugby fans would know him," he said. But the NZRU had a history of not allowing what they termed "sabbaticals" to anybody except those who had given extreme service to the black jersey.
It was a reward, a chance to top-up their earnings, while remaining committed to the All Blacks.
Players who went anyway, without permission, were looked dimly upon and rarely welcomed back into the All Blacks jersey. Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock both played more than 100 games for the All Blacks but were not granted sabbaticals. Neither was Andrew Hore, who played 83 tests.
The NZRU was finally forced to consider sabbaticals when fly-half Dan Carter was offered a reported £750,000 for a season with French side Stade Toulousain. Carter was still in his prime and with a home Rugby World Cup coming, New Zealand rugby feared it could lose him, so eventually allowed him to sign a deal with French club Perpignan, where he was reportedly paid £30,000 a game.
In May 2012, Ma'a Nonu returned to the Blues after a summer sabbatical with Ricoh Black Rams in Japan, just the second player after Carter to be granted a sabbatical. Now the NZRU was considering what to do with Williams, who had given the All Blacks none of the service Carter and Nonu had.
Unlike Carter and Nonu, Williams was not contracted beyond that season, so he was free to leave if he liked. It could only raise problems if he ever returned.
In good news for Williams, the NZRU's general manager of professional rugby, Neil Sorensen, opened the door in May when he said the game would treat sabbaticals on a case-by-case basis.
Again, Williams was polarising opinion. None of this is unexpected. Increasingly, those close to Williams - who, by some coincidence, could also benefit by his talent - were prepared to make concessions to later benefit from that talent.
Those with less to lose, but nothing less personal at stake, resolutely defended their sport.
As such, like his walkout on the Bulldogs four years earlier, speculation that Williams was putting himself above the game again angered the rusted-on fans, but this time in his new code.
They believed no one had been afforded the privileges he had and, with players of the calibre of Woodcock and Mealamu not given sabbaticals, Williams, too, should be made to earn his opportunity.
On July 9, Williams looked past all that and announced at a press conference in Hamilton he would play with Japan's Panasonic Wild Knights over the summer. Then he said he would return to the NRL in 2013 and the Sydney Roosters.
"This is due to a handshake agreement made a few years ago before I even came back to New Zealand with an NRL club," he said. "I haven't signed anything yet and I'm not in a position to elaborate on that."
Nobody at the press conference picked up on the irony that he was returning to the NRL to honour a handshake deal when four years earlier he walked out on a written and signed contract.
Williams told the press he was enjoying his rugby but did not want to go back on his word. There were still reservations within the NRL about his return. Memories are long in this game. But not too long.
"It's a massive gamble but I love the fact the Roosters look like they've been able to entice Sonny back into the NRL," Brad Fittler told James Hooper at the Sunday Telegraph. "The only question mark I would have is how long is Sonny Bill going to stay for? Recent history says Sonny only likes signing short-term deals. For me, that's a risk."
Another former captain, Royce Ayliffe, believed strongly in the strength of your word. How you honoured it said a lot about you. "From the club's point of view I would rather see the money spent on up-and-coming talent," he said. "You're asking me if it's a good buy for the Roosters? No I don't think it is."
It didn't matter. He was coming.
The one-year deal at the Roosters was worth a reported $850,000. With his $1.2m pocketed in Japan, Williams stood to earn more than $2m, a significant upgrade on the $500,000 he would earn if he -remained at the Chiefs.
On top of that, Roosters chairman Nick Politis also agreed to let Williams fight and he would fight in February after returning from Japan. His fights brought him an estimated $150,000-$200,000, depending on the night.
"The whole Japanese thing came about, I knew I was going overseas next year, they come and give me an offer and first I turned it down. But they come back with an offer that I pretty much couldn't refuse," Williams told the Daily Telegraph.
Finally confirmed, the reaction across much of New Zealand mirrored the reaction in Australia four years earlier when he walked out on the Bulldogs.
New Zealand television presenter Peter Williams was savage, writing online: "He's nothing but an immoral, money-grabbing, and dishonourable piece of work, being manipulated by an appallingly greedy management team that have been way, way too clever for the naive coaches and administrators from New Zealand rugby. I don't know which is more galling - to see the considerable investment that New Zealand rugby has put into this guy not reach its full potential, or the way the NZRU and Chiefs people have put on smiley faces as their investment goes off to that powerhouse of powder puff rugby, Panasonic, and wish him well with not even a mild complaint about his behaviour."
When he signed with Panasonic, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said Williams would not be considered for the 2012 Rugby Championship against Australia, South Africa and Argentina. The Rugby Championship ran from August 18 to October 7 and the deal with Panasonic called for him to be in Japan for the team's first game on August 31. But once again, his talent was needed. All Blacks' midfielders Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui suffered injuries. Although Panasonic was less than pleased, they had to accept it. Williams played two Bledisloe Cup Tests against the Wallabies before ending his New Zealand commitments.
In two years he won himself a World Cup, two Bledisloe Cups and a Super Rugby title. That is success.
• Edited extract from Sonny Ball, the Legend of Sonny Bill Williams by Paul Kent. Macmillan, RRP $39.99, available from August 12.