Monday 26 September 2016

Neil Francis: No more urinating in public or fighting - How Sonny Bill Williams transformed his life

Reformed character sums up New Zealand's sense of brotherhood and mutual respect

Published 08/11/2015 | 17:00

Supporter Charlie Line receives a Rugby World Cup winner’s medal from Sonny Bill Williams
in Twickenham last weekend
Supporter Charlie Line receives a Rugby World Cup winner’s medal from Sonny Bill Williams in Twickenham last weekend

The theme here is redemption of self. That Sonny Bill Williams (SBW) moment with the young boy being given a World Cup winner's medal fresh off the neck of a champion was as authentic a moment in the human spirit as the sporting world has seen.

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There is an emotional calm that follows all big sporting occasions, almost a release from the pressure of the previous hours. Very few sportsmen would have acted with the sort of thoughtful dignity and heroic virtue that SBW did after seeing a young boy being manhandled the way he was as he came forward to acknowledge and salute his heroes. It was his generosity of spirit that illuminated the world.

Handing the boy a coated piece of nickel was not what the moment was about. What elevated the instant was the selfless grace in the gesture. Hollywood, with all the very finest talent at its disposal, would struggle to recapture the fidelity of the exchange.

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A moment like this though was a long way off as Sonny Bill Williams struggled through an imperfect apprenticeship and endured a corruption of self and his undoubted talent. For many years we doubted him. A grey character followed by shadows. We were never certain that the maturity displayed last Saturday would manifest.

Khoder Nasser - yet another Aussie of Lebanese extract - is the central character in this journey. In every circus there is a ringmaster and Nasser, essentially a boxing promoter and impresario, managed to impress a young Williams enough to become his agent and manager and so an extraordinary adventure began. Williams' career is erratic and at several stages it looked like it might crash-land into uncharted irrelevance along the way. Sporting history is littered with show ponies that tripped up on their own self-importance.

Sonny Bill Williams is already dropping suggestions about his involvement in next summer’s sevens at the Rio Olympics
Sonny Bill Williams is already dropping suggestions about his involvement in next summer’s sevens at the Rio Olympics

In 2008, SBW signed a $2m deal with the Canterbury Bulldogs. A year into the deal, SBW hopped on a plane with Nasser and met up with Mourad Boudjellal. A deal was done and suddenly SBW was at Toulon. 'Breach of contract', what does that mean?

The Australian NRL branded it as "the greatest act of treachery in the game". In a league where there is a scandal every other week, that was really saying something. Canterbury put their former player in the toaster: "His signature isn't worth anything." SBW's reputation went down the toilet.

SBW's career became a blur of contradictions as he changed, back-tracked, moved on, walked in, and walked out again. SBW got into so much trouble that the newspaper editors didn't know what page to put him on. He got booked for drunk and disorderly behaviour, drink driving, urinating in public, fighting in nightclubs, and even getting caught on camera with a model and athlete Candice Falzon in the toilets of a Sydney hotel. We are not sure whether it was a compromising or uncompromising position. At this stage in his career he had become fractious and disagreeable and very unpopular wherever he played.

As the years rolled on, Nasser added another couple of vinegar characters to his stable. Anthony Mundine is a truly unlikeable character and a keyboard terrorist who has said some outrageous things in his time. Again the career path was bizarre as he went to and left numerous rugby league clubs without any rhyme or reason. Mundine even went from rugby league to professional boxing with some success. The boxing here is a common theme.

New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham, London
New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham, London

Sure enough, Quade Cooper meanders into Nasser's stable. Cooper's antics need no further documentation in this column. His surly and brusque behaviour in the Wallaby squad came to an end when the influence of another Australian of Lebanese origins came to bear. Cooper amazingly also attempted a boxing career (sometimes you wonder whether these guys ever think for themselves). Last week Cooper completed the terms of a protracted and legally divisive move away from Australia to . . . well, everyone's favourite club. Good ol' Mourad, he certainly knows how to pick them. Agents are the crabgrass on the lawn of life and Nasser's influence really cultivated controversy for these three players as their career paths lurched from one unpredictable episode to the next.

SBW's career could have continued down that road but for two transformational departures in his life. Sonny Bill, in 2008, converted to Islam, and a year later Graham Henry got his hands on him and he became an All Black.

I am told that the teachings of Islam state that life on earth is temporary and superficial. The afterlife is what it is about, and life on earth is almost an accumulation of good deeds and prayer. Material goods and wealth are of no consequence. Sonny Bill quit the booze and immersed himself in the culture. He became more altruistic and less focused on money and possessions. As a former Christian, it probably was hard to draw the distinction between Islam and the devout Christian values of Polynesians - either way it worked for Sonny Bill.

No more fights, no more bad headlines, no more drunken brawls. He observed the Shahadat (conversion), began eating halal meat, and went to pray at the mosque every day after training. He observes Ramadan and when his team-mates are listening to Daft Punk on their headphones, he is quietly reciting the Koran standing in the corner.

I find that when people, particularly Hollywood celebrities, find God, or find God again (wherever he went), or find a new obscure God or find L Ron Hubbard, it reinforces the notion that they are pretentious cretins. Sports stars who embrace religion for the first or second time don't really fare that well either in the credibility stakes. When I see NFL stars point to the sky when they score a touchdown or kneel down in a group prayer after the match and then go home and beat their wives, it is hard to take them seriously. Impossible in fact.

Sonny Bill seems to have embraced the faith and genuinely transformed himself. The other religion he has joined is the All Blacks. Here there is a moral code, a sense of brotherhood and mutual respect and all are equal.

Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand (C) is tackled by Scott Sio (L) and Bernard Foley (R) of Australia during their Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham in London, October 31, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand (C) is tackled by Scott Sio (L) and Bernard Foley (R) of Australia during their Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham in London, October 31, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The competition just finished has demonstrated how well the group has comported themselves on and off the field. They are a model group. Nobody, it seems, goes off on a tangent and the sense of the collective is all-pervasive - religious almost.

It has been the saving of Sonny Bill Williams. SBW has won two World Cups, two Super XV championships, two NRL grand finals, numerous Tri Nations titles and now he is set to contend for an Olympic Sevens title in Rio next summer. I am now certain that these titles or medals, while gratifying, mean very little to him. The satisfaction, I suppose, is in the journey and the memory.

This story lies too with the comparison with the toxic Anthony Mundine (who also converted to Islam) and Quade Cooper. We wait to see how Cooper comports himself in Toulon. Demonstrating the mix of insouciant brilliance and then next minute the demeanour of an untipped waiter.

The kid, Charlie Line, could have been named better by his parents (cocaine) but maybe this won't be his only great moment in life - we hope. For Sonny Bill, a signal quality and a moment of reconciliation with himself. In the rugby fraternity we do seem to be superior in our modesty and self-satisfaction - not this story though. This vignette refreshed the soul and, in truth, was a great moment in sport.

New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu celebrate at the end of the match
New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu celebrate at the end of the match

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