Oliver Keohane celebrates the career of Sonny Bill Williams, and his impact as a rugby player and sporting superstar.
“Hold the ball with two f*cking hands, you’re not Sonny Bill Williams yet”. The only piece of wisdom ever shouted by my dad from the sideline, where he would usually be a quiet observer, offering insight in the car ride home instead. The “yet” was most appreciated in the greater context of how my life would unfold.
It was 2011, it was SACS under 12B and I was the Tight head prop. I was also the guy who had just lost the ball for the third time in contact trying to swing a one handed backspin from the touchline to our centre. Trying to swing an “SBW”.
I have been surrounded by rugby since I could walk, hanging out at Springbok trainings as a baby while my dad was part of the management, sitting in the Currie Cup trophy when our family home played host to it over one weekend in 2001. But I never felt awed or engrossed by one specific player or team. I simply loved rugby, and always felt I was very objective in my support – even in the case of the Springboks and All Blacks, having one side of my family live in South Africa and the other in New Zealand.
This was until early in 2011 though, when my dad told me to read a Business Day Sport column on this Rugby League player, who was also a New Zealand boxer and was set to feature in the 2011 Super Rugby in hopes of making the All Blacks World Cup squad.
When that Super Rugby kicked off, I felt for the first time what it was like to be absolutely blown away by a player, and in love with a team. Albeit, my love for the Crusaders was entirely one season long as Sonny Bill Williams hopped on to the Chiefs, helped them to back to a Super Rugby title, and eventually ended his Super Rugby career at the Blues.
I had the privilege of experiencing first hand a player who entirely changed the way rugby union was played. Much what it was like, I can imagine, for a kid in the 90s to have first seen Jonah Lomu explode onto the scene. First off, I had never watched someone start on the blindside flank (during his brief time at Toulon), bounce between inside and outside centre and then occasionally start on the wing. With the knowledge that he was also a heavyweight boxer still very present in my mind, his versatility fascinated me.
But it was his style and presence that demanded my attention.
The “SBW” offload was revolutionary to the 15-man game, and though many passes had been thrown like that before, there had never been a player who posed such a threat in being able to consistently throw them. Williams would draw in entire defensive lines, and while his running meters would often not amass to much, there would be three or four team mates who had had open runs to the try-line thanks to the offload thrown by Williams with both opposition centres, the flyhalf and two props hanging off his back.
He was also explosive and powerful when carrying at inside centre, illusive with his swerve from broken play, and his left shoulder on defence was scary to watch. If you ask Ryan Kankowski, I’m sure it was worse in person than on television. I had never seen a rugby player so physically and skill-fully adept. Away from sport, to witness his growth, kindness and humble nature was added inspiration to the incredible feats he accomplished on the field.
The other privilege I had, was that of watching Williams’ inaugural season at centre played off of Dan Carter, who I believe is the best ten to ever have played the game. In my rugby-watching career I have never enjoyed a flyhalf/centre combination more than those two. Williams played inside Robbie Fruean that year, who was a beast at outside centre, in a backline completed by Israel Dagg, Zac Guilford, Sean Maitland and Andy Ellis. The Crusaders in 2011 should have won Super Rugby, and to get to the final having played almost every game away from home in the year of the Christchurch earthquake was an incredible feat.
What countered my disappointment though, of watching Will Genia put the Crusaders title hopes to sleep, was watching Sonny bill Williams sizzle through the group stages of the All Blacks 2011 World Cup journey. I remember him tearing up Tonga from all over the field and scoring a try against France having come on as a replacement winger. Williams was never going to be the starting centre, it would have been unfair to the history and quality of the Nonu-Smith pairing, but he was undoubtedly a presence wherever and whenever he played. What was beautiful for me to watch was that four years later the All Black centre axis was that of Williams, Nonu and Smith, with each of them playing a very specific role. If you ever need to remind yourself of their impact as a trio just watch the 2015 World Cup Final against Australia.
Where Williams went, I followed. What Williams did, I tried to emulate. I had a Kiwi Rugby league jersey to match my All Black one, supported three New Zealand Super Rugby teams over his career, learnt who Toulon were at age 11 and even followed a bit of Sevens rugby at one stage (a code I have never truly fallen for). I even watched him box Francois “The Buffalo” Botha.
I didn’t have his green Adizero boots, because school policy was black boots until grade 8, I didn’t have the body or the speed to be a centre or wing, or the confidence to carry myself like one. But what I did have finally was a sporting hero, someone I watched games for, someone who inspired me to elevate my game and try new things, someone who encouraged me to get into the kind of shape that would allow me to show off my skills and not just my scrumming.
It is a crazy realisation, when a sporting star retires, that you too are getting older and that life has changed. I’m 21 now, not 11, but the feeling of watching Sonny Bill Williams light up a field over the last ten years never changed from that of the boy who got to watch him play in front of thousands at Newlands Stadium in his first year of Rugby Union.