Toronto Wolfpack’s dual-code star Sonny Bill Williams looks back upon a challenging introduction to Super League both personally and as a team in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports Rugby League.
The 34-year-old, who was featuring for the All Blacks in rugby union as recently as the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, surprised everyone by signing on with Super League’s newest inductees in November 2019: Toronto Wolfpack out of Canada.
Having joined on a mega two-year contract, the start to the campaign has been far from smooth for the serial winner though – the first six fixtures have seen six defeats.
“It’s been tough,” Williams says of this Super League season. “Obviously from a team point of view, we haven’t been playing the type of footy that we’d aspire to play.
“But at the same time, I’ve really enjoyed it. The competition, the grind of it, and I felt like we were kind of just starting to hit our straps.
“Obviously with this break, it’s unprecedented times that we’re in and it didn’t come at a great time for us. In saying that it gave us time to rebuild and look at what we were doing wrong because you can’t just lose six games on the trot and think you’re doing something right.
“We’ve been trying to work on that, and at the same time, I think the thing for us as a team is a lot of the boys need to understand that we’re not playing in the second division anymore, where you can get away with vital moments in the game where you lose a little bit of concentration.
“The teams we’re playing and the quality of players we’re lining up against will make you hurt, and we definitely found that out in the first month and a half of footy.
“I hope we can learn our lessons, keep growing and move forward.”
Known for his power in contact, strong carrying game and a wondrous offloading ability, Williams has struggled to stand out in a team that has only known defeat at the top level so far.
How would Williams grade his own start to life in a Toronto jersey?
“I know I can play a lot better than I’ve been playing, but at the same time, when you’re losing by 40 points each week and you’re making 30 to 40 tackles, it’s hard to get off how you want to play.
“But my mindset hasn’t changed, I’ve just got to keep doing the hard work. If I concentrate and put my mindset into doing the little things that you probably can’t see on the TV, like the defensive points and working hard and pushing for my team-mates, the pretty stuff will come afterwards.
“Hopefully we can start getting a few wins on the trot and then some of that magic can come out.
“But at this stage, that’s the self-assessment I’d give myself: I’m working hard but I haven’t been able to do the stuff that I know I can do.
“I just have to have Sabr, as we say as Muslims – which means patience and to keep working hard.”
Having begun his remarkable sporting career with the NRL’s Canterbury Bulldogs in 2004, he would play in the premier of southern hemisphere’s rugby league until 2008, when a move to French club Toulon tempted him to rugby union.
In 2010, he moved back to New Zealand but remained in rugby union as he signed for Canterbury and latterly the Crusaders, making his All Blacks debut the same year.
He remained in Super Rugby with the Chiefs – albeit he spent 2012 in Japan with Panasonic Wild Knights and the 2013 season and beginning of the 2014 campaign back in rugby league with the Sydney Roosters.
He returned to Union to represent New Zealand at the 2016 Olympics in Sevens and at the 2015 Rugby World Cup for the All Blacks – ultimately lifting the trophy.
Williams remained in the 15-man code for another four years with the hope of clinching another World Cup, before joining Super League for the first time after New Zealand’s semi-final exit to England in Japan.
As a man who has encountered and experienced so many different sporting environments, what has he made of Super League so far?
“I’ve always loved playing in the UK, whether the 13-man game or the 15-man game, I’ve always had a lot of support here,” he says.
“And from a spiritual point of view, the Ummah, the Muslim community is very strong there as well, and I love all of that.
“The biggest thing is the amount of support. You go away from home, and as a Toronto side, we’ve played all our home games away from home also, the amount of support I’ve got from a personal point of view has been really uplifting.
“For me, I’m just me. Humbly, I’m a Muslim. Humbly, I’ve been blessed to have been gifted to play sport.
“Rugby League doesn’t define who I am as a person or as a man, and for me, I try to treat everyone how I’d like to be treated, and that’s how I try to move.
“Sport has allowed me to move in a way where all ages from a five-year-old boy to an 80-year-old man can come up to me and say: ‘How are you Sonny?’, so I try to be a good person and give them a bit of time too. I quite enjoy that.”
At the moment, Williams is regarded as the biggest name in Super League, but next year he may have some competition for such a mantle.
That is because last week, Australia, Queensland and NRL legend Greg Inglis was confirmed to be coming out of retirement to join the Warrington Wolves in 2021.
What does Williams make of such a signing?
“Great signing. I’ve always admired GI (Greg Inglis). He’s a once in a lifetime type of player.
“I think where Super League has struggled over the last 10-15 years has been in not getting big-name players across the pitch over here.
“And whether it be GI or myself or other players, it brings eyeballs to the game and that’s what we need.
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