“Talent is God given, be humble.
Fame is Man given, be grateful.
Conceit is Self given, be careful.”
– John Wooden
“It’s harder to crack a prejudice than an atom”
– Albert Einstein
“Jerry, it’s not a lie if you believe it to be true”
– George Costanza
Like everyone, I’ve been fascinated by the Sonny Bill Williams phenomenon. Even though the Dr’s interest extends back ten years and not the week since the Grand Final, it is the more contemporary conjecture over his playing future that has captured the widest attention.
This is unfortunate in a way, because it abstracts from the athlete, and has fans and journalists ‘rubberneckin’ every move as if it were a car crash.
Regardless of any superhuman or super-subliminal feats this year, the name Sonny Bill Williams seems destined to perpetually polarise opinion. And yet, since leaving the Bulldogs in 2008 in circumstances that are still not well understood by most, he really hasn’t put a foot wrong.
The good news is that many have been converted by the sheer depth of his talent and larger-than-life persona. He has left a positive and indelible mark on all teams with which he has been involved, strengthening them from within in areas ranging from work ethic to preparation to belief. There has been zero doubt as to his complete commitment to any team, and you struggle to find anyone who has actually worked with him saying a harsh word. The invariable response is glowing praise.
Sounds like a legacy to be proud of to me.
He is also the type of clean-living, approachable role model the NRL has sought for years. Having anointed several players with the ‘face of the NRL’ moniker, the NRL has unwittingly subjected them to the ‘face of the NRL curse’. Even the ‘unofficial’ face of the NRL in 2013 (after Barba succumbed early), Sam Burgess, couldn’t withstand the gravitational pull of controversy, driven to grabbing peckers, eyes and using knees late in the season.
As the self-appointed physician to attend any and all ills of the NRL, and armed with little more than a rusty stethoscope and a healthy dose of horse sense, I’ve observed the drama and attendant commentary with interest.
To say I’m disappointed in the level of commentary is an understatement. Not only have journalists been completely infatuated by SBW’s playing future to the point of distraction and saturation, they have done so with no sign of any inside information or intelligent speculation whatsoever. Making it move beyond the pale has been a viciousness and toxicity set to Defcon 5.
But has it really been so hard to connect the dots? Taking in his stellar performances this year including a Premiership (Bob McCarthy might disagree), the esteem with which he is held by all team mates, and the point in his career at which he finds himself, was 2014 really the guesswork many would have us believe?
Looking objectively at his achievements, it would not only be difficult to do a hit ‘n run on the NRL with a Premiership in hand and then leaving a group of ‘soul mates’ and friendships forged through the pain and grind of a long season, but if there is one thing he hasn’t achieved in the NRL, it’s a back to back Premiership.
Why would he go back to rugby a year early? For what? Was there really any risk the NZRU wouldn’t relax their ambit claim that playing Super 15 in 2014 was mandatory for selection in the 2015 Rugby World Cup? As they said themselves when asked if they wanted him back, “Why wouldn’t we?”
While he only had the five minutes of game time in the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final, I’m sure Kiwi officials would have given him significantly more if they had their time again. I mean, 8-7 isn’t exactly a comfortable win against the French now, is it?
To put it even more frankly, the All Blacks are going to need SBW to win the Cup consecutively, and on foreign soil, with a playing roster two years longer in the tooth.
For that reason, the not so secret Sans Souci meeting wasn’t a betrayal of the NRL and all it stands for. It wasn’t an act of use and abuse, and it wasn’t monumental chutzpah only hours after making himself available for the Rugby League World Cup. That last point should have been leapt on as the greatest sign possible he was staying with the Roosters and the NRL for 2014. To have played the Rugby league World Cup given the controversy surrounding his availability, and the message this would have sent to the Roosters about his plans for 2014 (which it did), then not play on next year would have been a different issue.
He didn’t, so it wasn’t.
The Dr made the point to a couple of commentators on the day of the Sans Souci meeting that it was more likely the negotiation centred around eligibility for the Rugby World Cup should he return to Super 15 in 2015. It seemed a fairly straight forward assumption to make given the information and connecting the dots. The bond formed at the Roosters this year has been watertight, and many appear to have underestimated its power.
In that sense, too, there was no rejection of the NZRU as has been suggested – it was merely a postponement to rejoining the fold, about which there can be no doubt.
If the Dr (and others) can reach a conclusion like this in his virtual surgery/couch/’rooms’, then it behooves the official commentators to lift their game. Given the level of character assassination lately, though, it is clear that hatred burns deep and clouds the judgement. It sells papers though, and I suppose that is the point. Accuracy has taken a back seat to expediency, and to be groping about in the dark for information has turned many bitter, it would seem.
Just ask CEO David Smith, who has turned off the Bat Phone to journalists. He’s hardly had a good word written about him and his organisation all year (some justified, some clearly not), and I can only imagine how much it burns them to realise that the NRL have been neck-deep in the SBW negotiations for some time. The lack of leaks is simply extraordinary, and it doesn’t fuel news copy in the same way bone-headed conjecture and untruths do.
There are clearly going to be people who are unswayed by the last five years of SBW’s stellar performances and team ethic, and who certainly won’t pay tribute of any sort to a 2013 season that has not only defied (so-called) critics, but has opened the eyes of many to the possibilities in the game of rugby league.
And they almost certainly won’t soften when they learn about what he does off the field, not just within the confines of a team environment, but also in making himself perpetually available to every group of kids wanting a photo.
At some point, fans and commentators need to ask themselves what they want from the game. Is it enjoyment? It should be. By all means support your team with vigour, but also revel in the toughness and skill of all players and all teams. When there are a few players clearly above the pack, celebrate it. Immerse yourself in the glory of athletic ability and game-changing efforts, even when performed by the opposition.
There is no need to moan continuously about someone being bigger than the game. It happens, and it always will. Rugby League might be the ‘working man’s game, but there is a large element of meritocracy to it also, particularly given the numbers it generates as a business (on top of being a game).
Rugby League doesn’t need SBW per se, in the same way it doesn’t need Smith, Slater, Thurston and countless others. But I’ll let you in on a (non) secret – it is far better for having them in the game.