Toronto Wolfpack’s Sonny Bill Williams happy to shoulder expectation in Super League
It is 15 years ago since the acclaimed Kiwi marauded around for Canterbury Bulldogs in the World Club Challenge, reminding everyone of just what a talent he was.
Williams was only 19 at the time but already a colossus.
Granted, Leeds went on to win the trophy but, by the end, any British rugby league fans who may have wondered what all the SBW fuss was about had been truly enlightened.
Former Rhinos forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan, hardly a shrinking violet himself, tells a wonderful tale about how he was due to take in the next carry.
However, having witnessed two of his toughest colleagues firmly floored, opted to ‘stay wide and keep some shape’.
A wise man, indeed; Williams – who has won two World Cups with the All Blacks and also been a heavyweight boxing champion – had that aura about him back then and still does now.
He was back in Leeds yesterday but across the city at Emerald Headingley, home of the Rhinos and home of the Betfred Super League 2020 season launch.
Williams, of course, is preparing himself for his first taste of Super League action after joining Toronto Wolfpack on a two-year £6m deal – the biggest-ever in either code.
It remains to be seen if he will be fit in time for the newcomers’ opener against Castleford Tigers at Headingley a week tomorrow.
But what about that night in 2005?
“That was a long time ago,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “I need to jog the memory banks to remember exactly what’s gone on back then.
“But I do remember facing a very tough Rhinos team and I remember it was very heated. They were a fiery, fiery bunch of lads. So to know that ‘Coach’ was on the coaching staff then makes a lot of sense.
“They were a great team and unfortunately we didn’t win that game but that was my second time playing over here. It was nice.”
The ‘Coach’ who Williams refers to is Brian McDermott, the Toronto chief who helped persuade him to take up their lucrative offer to entice him back from rugby union and who was Leeds assistant coach in 2005.
A fellow boxer, they have plenty in common.
Williams became world-famous for those shoulder charges that rocked opponents.
Back then, as such a young but imposing presence, did he feel unstoppable as he launched into such fearsome hits?
The 34-year-old shrugged: “I don’t know. It’s been a while since the shoulder charge was banned.
“But I used to love doing the shoulder charge back in those days as that’s what I grew up doing. I was a young skinny kid and always trying to prove myself. That was just years of practicing and then being able to do it on the big stage was pretty cool.
“But I understand the dangers of it and it’s a really good thing that it’s been outlawed now. But don’t get it twisted... if the shoulder bans weren’t there I’d still be trying to find them!”
Much has changed not only since 2005 but since the skilful Williams’s last spell in the 13-man game six years ago.
He won an NRL Grand Final with Sydney Roosters in 2013 after his first return from the All Blacks and headed back to union at the end of the following campaign.
At yesterday’s launch event, Williams was joined on the stage by another of Super League’s new ‘marquee’ players – the Catalans Dragons half-back James Maloney.
Australian Maloney was a team-mate in that ’13 Roosters side and was quick to wind-up his former colleague when asked by compere Brian Carney if he was surprised to see him return.
“I remember last time he left he said he’d never come back to league as in rugby (union) you could make seven tackles and it was a big game.
“He comes back as a back-row and now he has to make 15 tackles and 25 hit-ups. But I suppose when that pay cheque’s thrown at you you just come don’t you!”
Williams brushed it off and said: “I’m very grateful and blessed to be given this opportunity and I’m really excited to come back to the game I’ve grown up playing.
“I can tell everyone is ready to go – and I’m looking forward to playing on that right side and tipping on you (Maloney)...”
Maloney will not be the only half-back wondering about whether he will get trampled on an edge in the months ahead.
For all he is approaching his 35th birthday, dual-code international Williams is in great physical shape and fully expects to regain his peak form once he has settled into the Toronto way.
Having done so much and achieved so much, he was asked this week if he was still the same guy who started out all those years ago in such a blaze of glory.
“I still have that competitive drive,” he said. “My sporting life has been a rollercoaster and as you guys know, I’ve made a hell of a lot of mistakes throughout my career and life.
“But I guess that I’m trying to live by the mantra that it’s never a mistake if you learn from it.”
He added: “I’ve learned my lessons and I’m trying to apply that in how I carry myself as a sportsman. To ask if I’m still the same guy... it’s a tough one but I’d like to think so.
“I always have that point to prove, no matter where I am. I still wouldn’t be around after 18 or 19 years if I didn’t have that inner drive to succeed.
“I know that comparing or worrying about outside sources doesn’t get you anywhere, but sometimes if you use a little bit of that for motivation, then it can be a good thing.”
Clearly, there is plenty of attention around Williams. It emerged this week, for example, that he has refused to wear Super League’s main sponsor’s Betfred logo on his Wolfpack shirt due to his religious beliefs.
Then, of course, there is that salary.
But he said his new team-mates have been “really accepting of me. I understand I come with a bit more than normal and I have to be a bit vocal to break down those barriers and talk to some guys.
“But the boys have been really welcoming and I’m just trying to get to know them and vice-versa,” he added.
As Super League’s biggest-ever signing, it will be fascinating to see what he – and Toronto – will bring to the table in 2020.
Expect some bone-jarring hits along the way...