Sonny Bill Williams steps into unknown but Toronto mission is no ‘holiday’

Aaron Bower
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA</span>
Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

Sonny Bill Williams thrives on a challenge but as he took in his surroundings on Thursday even he was quick to admit this was a whole new world. “That makes it so exciting because I believe in this project,” the Toronto Wolfpack signing said.

Seldom does rugby league attract the attention of the opposite code, but when you combine a player of Williams’s profile with a league franchise as unique as Toronto, it is not difficult to see why this move has the sporting world talking. By his own admission it is likely the final chapter of an outstanding cross-code career.

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“It probably is the last hurrah for me but it doesn’t mean I’m here for a holiday,” Williams said. “I’m here to succeed.” The multimillion-pound two-year deal he has signed with the Wolfpack could be his last – he is 34 – and in a sign of the pull the Canadian club have, he admitted they are perhaps the only league team for which he could have been lured back to the 13-man code.

“This opportunity was the only one – it had to be something special,” Williams said. “I believe in what the [Auckland-based] Blues are doing and they were moving in the right direction but when this arose I knew I had to sit down and have a think. Then when I spoke with the club and they told me what they were trying to achieve, it just made sense.”

Toronto have made no secret of their ambition to revolutionise rugby league and a player with the profile of Williams is arguably the biggest thing to happen to the sport in decades. The opportunity to use his considerable influence in a new market such as North America is not lost on him, either.

“If we can get some traction and the sport takes off over there, that would be awesome. I want to help deliver some exposure in North America and prove to people that these guys are here to stay. Who knows, maybe we can start another team in Canada too?”

There is also the chance to make a real difference whenever Toronto are playing away from home in the north of England. Many of the towns Williams will visit with the his new teammates in 2020 have racial divisions and other deep-rooted cultural problems. As a proud Muslim, can Williams inspire a new group of people to pick up a rugby ball?

“If I can make a difference in that regard, then that would be awesome. But I will just try to do my best there. Racial tension is everywhere brother, not just in the north of England.”

Toronto have compared the significance of signing Williams to LeBron James, a likeness that does not sit easily with the player. “I understand why they’ve done it, though ... to get traction in North America. But there’s no better opportunity for me than this one and not wanting to be compared to him doesn’t mean it’s pressure, it just means I don’t see myself as a big star like that.”

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Many in both codes of rugby would disagree – and with the Wolfpack intent on signing further big names in the buildup to their first season in Super League, Williams may not be the last megastar to make the move to rugby league in Canada.

“A few big names in union have expressed an interest to me,” Williams said. “I won’t name names or I’ll get into trouble but let’s just say if we do sign some big rugby players to come to Toronto, it would be great for us as a club.”

Time will tell whether others will follow Williams to the Wolfpack and it remains difficult to predict how sizeable a move this could be for the profile of rugby league on both sides of the Atlantic.

Williams admitted to knowing only one of his teammates – the former Great Britain forward Jon Wilkin – and is very much stepping into the unknown but that is probably just how a player who has always pushed himself out of his comfort zone likes it.

“This project has got me on the edge of my seat. Who knows what success looks like for Toronto but it’s exciting to be part of it and unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”

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