Duel-code star given the highest honour in rugby league.
Sonny Bill Williams might have been taken a five-year gap away in rugby union and professional boxing, but his worth to rugby league has been immediately rewarded with the highest international award in his comeback season.
The New Zealand and Sydney Roosters forward left league in 2008 to play rugby union in France, Japan and his homeland, where he was part of the All Blacks squad that went on to win the 2011 Rugby World Cup on home soil.
Williams moved on to become a key figure in the Sydney Roosters team that won the club’s first NRL Grand Final for over a decade and has been an integral part of the Kiwi side that is bidding to successfully defend its World Cup trophy, with the final set for Saturday against Australia.
The 28-year-old Muslim is the first Kiwi to win the International Player of the Year award, which has been won by Australian players since its inception in 2008 – Billy Slater (2008, 2011), Jarryd Hayne (2009), Todd Carney (2010) and Cameron Smith (2012).
Williams, who is also New Zealand’s heavyweight boxing champion, is arguably rugby’s – in both codes – biggest name and is set on becoming the first player to win both union and league World Cups.
“I’m pretty banged up but I’ll be raring to go,” Williams said after the thrilling 20-18 semi-final victory over England, adding of Saturday’s final: “These games are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and you’ve got to try and take them with both hands.
“Obviously we are the reigning world champions but in the past four years Australia haven’t lost too many games. That’s why I’m here, because I want to play against the best. At the moment Australia definitely set the standards.”
But even his inclusion was masked in controversy after he initially rebuffed a place, but later accepted it, meaning coach Stephen Kearney was forced to drop Tohu Harris to make way for Williams.
The second-rower, who dashed the hopes of Waikato Chiefs and the New Zealand Rugby Union by signing a new contract with the Roosters for 2014, has admitted to thriving on the pressure surrounding him, something not lost on coach Kearney.
“He’s been a very consistent performer for the Roosters,” Kearney said. “He’s got them in the position where they’re able to challenge for the premiership, obviously with help from everyone in the team at the Roosters, but certainly he had a fairly big impact on the group.
“It’s been wonderful to have him back in the game, it’s nice to have him part of our side.
“We all knew the ability that he had, but I think the way he’s applied himself and seen him close up like I have done for the last four, five weeks, you can see what you have to be to cross three codes, or three sports, I think you need a bit more than talent.
“He has an application to his trade and to doing his job and getting things done which is pretty special.
Australia coach Tim Sheens acknowledged that Williams was “a special player” and someone whose media draw was nothing but beneficial for the code.
“He certainly had an influence in the England game and almost most games he plays in,” Sheens said.
“He’s surprised everyone. It’s a good, strong side he played with, well coached,” he said of the Roosters.
“Coming back and playing with a premiership side obviously helps as well, but he added to that, there’s no doubt, he didn’t run off the back of that, he really added to that.
“It’s good for our game and for our code around the world because he’s known over here and I think he’s well known as a rugby player in France too, so it’s been good for the code over here and playing in this tournament.
“I love the game as a game and love to see it played around the world and well respected so players like that are great to have around.”