WELLINGTON: Sonny Bill Williams was rushed into New Zealand’s Rugby League World Cup squad yesterday after the dual code international controversially reversed a decision to skip the tournament and take a holiday.
In a dramatic 24 hours, Williams initially snubbed the Kiwis by declaring he had “other commitments” but changed his tune after the squad was announced Tuesday, saying he wanted to take part and “help the brothers” defend the title they won in 2008.
Rookie Tohu Harris was the victim of Williams’s change of heart, with coach Stephen Kearney dumping the 21-year-old from his 24-man squad to make room for the former All Black.
“It’s been a tough situation, but Sonny brings things to the group that we couldn’t ignore,” said Kearney, who only found out about the U-turn late Tuesday after publicly announcing his squad for the October 26-November 30 tournament.
The debacle raised further questions about Williams’ commitment during a career in which he has displayed stunning athletic prowess but flitted between rugby union, rugby league and boxing seemingly on a whim. Williams, who started out in rugby league and won the rugby union World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011, said he turned down the Kiwis because he wanted to take a long-awaited break after helping the Sydney Roosters win Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) grand final at the weekend.
“After having some time to really think about how much representing my country means to me, I decided to then put my name forward for selection... I’m here and ready to help the brothers,” he said in a statement on social media.
Williams is currently weighing up whether to stay with the 13-man code or rejoin the All Blacks for a tilt at the 2015 World Cup and the Olympic sevens in 2016. The code-hopping 28-year-old’s decision to join the Kiwis sheds no light on his plans, and the player insisted after the grand final that he has simply not made up his mind. Williams’ lucrative sideline as a journeyman boxer further clouds his future, with New Zealand media reporting he is considering a heavyweight bout against 47-year-old Australian Bob Mirovic in February before the new season begins.
The Dominion Post’s Duncan Johnstone said Williams had “belittled” rugby league by expecting the Kiwis to tear up their teamsheet and welcome him with open arms.
“Williams’ change of mind is an indictment on himself and his management,” he wrote. “Have they suddenly become aware that there’s a World Cup on?” Meanwhile, the Heineken Cup swings into action again this week with the on-field action sheepishly emerging as something of a sideshow as the rival national factions continue their public fight over the future of the competition.
English and French clubs maintain they are absolutely committed to breaking away next season after repeatedly failing to extricate any concessions from the Celtic nations over a perceived qualification imbalance and how the money pot is shared.
The Irish clubs, who have done so much to lift Europe’s Premier tournament to its current levels of quality and world-wide interest, and their Scottish and Welsh companions, seem just as determined to plough on regardless.
Both sides claim to have the support of various governing bodies and insist that the other is breaking this protocol or that TV contract.
Meanwhile, the International Rugby Board is trying desperately to tread a neutral line by saying they would prefer a pan-European competition, while recognising the right of member unions and the clubs to try to maximise their own revenues. For fans who sat through similar wrangles and boycotts in the competition’s early years, it is all depressingly familiar, so a break in the rhetoric that has dominated its five “official launches” in recent weeks is more than welcome. AGENCIES