Ahead of their first year in the top-flight Betfred Super League, the Toronto Wolfpack made their first genuinely seismic acquisition in franchise history, signing All Blacks forward Sonny Bill Williams to a two-year deal worth a reported $10 million.
Williams’ signing made international headlines, while many in North America scrambled to apply ill-fitting labels to the 34-year-old, who is slated to raise the Wolfpack’s profile to new heights.
One major Canadian sports outlet hastily compared Williams to Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s latest patron saint after leading the Raptors to the NBA title last summer, or to David Beckham, who was tasked with raising the profile of MLS upon signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 at age 32. Neither label necessarily fits comfortably — although Yahoo Sports Canada producer Ciaran Breen aptly compared Williams to a current Galaxy star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the endlessly entertaining striker.
We’ve just entered the off-season as the Wolfpack secured promotion to the Super League on Oct. 5 with a 24-6 victory over Featherstone Rovers in the Grand Final.
Here’s what you need to know about Williams, and what you can expect from him going forward with the Wolfpack.
A decorated resume
Williams is rightly being celebrated for his prolific, diverse career and few players have shone as bright for their country. Here’s where it’s important to make the distinction between rugby league and rugby union, the former of which the Wolfpack play, the latter form most recently exhibited during the 2019 World Cup.
Standing in elite company as one of 21 players to have won the Rugby World Cup twice — 12 of his fellow All Blacks teammates also won alongside him in 2011 and 2015 — Williams is an All Blacks icon for his contributions to the rugby union side. Williams was primarily used as a wing and inside centre during the 2011 tournament, scoring in three consecutive games while coming off the bench. In 2015, Williams was a key reserve again, with star performances in the semifinal against France and final against Australia, helping the All Blacks defend their title.
While it’s important to note Williams’ rugby union heroics, they’re less pertinent to how he’ll perform with the Wolfpack. Williams is a rugby league star and made 12 appearances for New Zealand internationally, but where he’s dominated is at the club level, suiting up for the Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters of Australia’s top-tier National Rugby League from 2004-13 before switching back to rugby union. He won International Player of the Year in 2013 and while it’s reasonable to expect that he won’t be in the same form as he was six years ago, it shouldn’t take much time for Williams to readapt to rugby league.
It’s also worth mentioning that Williams holds the rare distinction of starring in rugby sevens as well but unfortunately, he tore his Achilles during the 2016 Summer Olympics. It speaks to his versatility as a player, and the fact that we’ve gone this far without mentioning his boxing career, where he holds a sparking 7-0 record as a heavyweight, and has credited the sport for making him a better rugby player.
Toronto is getting one hell of a player, even if he’s in the latter stages of his career.
Although many people are just learning about Williams in Canada, he’s a bonafide celebrity in New Zealand. Williams became one of the faces of Adidas upon becoming a global ambassador for the brand in 2014 and has earned endorsements from BMW and Powerade.
Williams isn’t afraid to speak up about his convictions and as a practicing Muslim, doesn’t drink. He strongly condemned the Christchurch Mosque attacks in March and has been open about his faith since converting in 2009.
A 2011 profile reveals that Williams was the fifth-most googled person in New Zealand ahead of the country’s World Cup victory that year. Due to Williams’ star power across both forms of rugby and as a boxer, he’s been a household name for several years. It’ll be compelling to see if his star power will slowly translate in North America.
What to expect in 2020
Williams joins the Wolfpack with plenty of fanfare but it’s important to correctly evaluate his on-field impact and the scope of his career accomplishments as he joins the team as a decorated veteran.
Although he helped the All Blacks win the World Cup in 2011 and 2015, he was never their best player. Williams never earned a nomination for World Rugby Player of the Year, while Dan Carter (2005, 2012, 2015), the inimitable fly-half and flanker Richie McCaw (2006, 2009, 2010) captured the award three times each, establishing themselves as some of the best players of all-time.
“The excitement he will bring to the sport of rugby league in this country will be incredible. Having someone of his talent join the Wolfpack will greatly raise the profile of the club, and also help move the game forward globally. Sonny is a phenomenal athlete and we believe he is rugby’s LeBron James and his addition to our league is comparable to when David Beckham joined LA Galaxy,” Wolfpack chairman Bob Hunter said in a statement.
With all due respect to Williams, comparing him to James and Beckham is simply unfair and places a weight of improper expectations on the 34-year-old. Williams never faced the equivalent of getting the Sports Illustrated cover as a high school junior with comparisons to Michael Jordan, then met them, and expecting him to raise the profile of the sport to the same heights as Beckham did with soccer in America is simply unrealistic.
This isn’t meant to be disrespectful to Williams, who should certainly be among the Super League’s best players, but he was never the LeBron or Kawhi of his sport, and at 34 coming off a six-year hiatus from rugby league, expecting a saviour-like 2020 campaign isn’t realistic. Expecting Williams to be a star player on an excellent Wolfpack team, however, is more accurate.
Williams is an excellent distributor of the ball and should feature as a second-row forward for the Wolfpack, joining an excellent corps which includes Player of the Year nominee Jon Wilkin. Even though he’s not quite the player he used to be, Williams’ combination of speed, power and intelligence will easily make him one of the best players in Super League. Although Williams stated that one of his goals is to serve as a mentor for the Wolfpack, this isn’t a young, inexperienced team, especially after making a host of veteran signings prior to the 2019 season with the goal of competing at the highest level.
Comparing Williams to LeBron in 2019 is inaccurate, considering that he just completed the 2019 World Cup and is transitioning back to rugby league. Considering the scope of his career, comparing him to Zlatan, Evgeni Malkin or a stronger, heightened version of peak-era Chris Paul is more accurate and that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at. Toronto’s bid to become a rugby league powerhouse just became a lot stronger with Williams, and he’s certainly the deserving face of their continual mainstream breakthrough.
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