IN mid-2008, one tiresome, routine afternoon at the Daily Telegraph‘s offices in Surry Hills, Sydney, I received an anonymous phone call.
“I have a story that might interest you,” the caller said enticingly. “It’s about Sonny Bill Williams.”
Tell me more, I replied. “I want to get paid,” the caller responded. At this point, internally, I switched off. I don’t agree with paying for stories but I also realised I had a duty to the paper to inform them of the offer.
“I can’t just agree to pay you for any story about Sonny Bill Williams,” I said to our mysterious informant, “tell me more.”
“Did you know he was going to Samoa to meet the king?”
This morsel of information sounded vaguely familiar. I told my caller to ring me back in an hour or so. I picked up the phone to the Bulldogs. “Yes, he’s going there on the weekend while he’s out injured,” I was told. “He’s going to become the face of Samoan tourism – we helped arrange it.”
When deep throat called back, I told him the club knew all about the trip. “Yes, but do they know the real reason he is going?” Our man would go no further. I informed my immediate superior of the call, handed over the number of the informant and thought nothing more of it.
A couple of weeks later, this reporter covered the Bulldogs’ clash with Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium. Williams was not talking to the Daily Telegraph by this stage – his colourful agent Khoder Nasser was firmly in the rival Fairfax camp with the Tele’ often very critical of another of his clients, rugby league player-cum-boxer Anthony Mundine.
But I thought there might be a circuitous route of getting something out of the great SBW. “Did you say anything out there on the field, mate?” I asked him.
“Huh?” he replied.
“To the TV. Did you say anything interesting to them at fulltime?”
“Nah, just the same old crap.”
For a fellow who was only 23 at the time, this comment struck me as being rather world-weary – and a tacit acknowledgement that most of his exchanges with the media were already in the currency of cliches.
That’s if there was any exchange at all. At the time, Williams was not pulling his weight at the Dogs in terms of media commitments, refusing almost every request.
There were those who would tell you this annoyed his team-mates – the extent to which this was true, I don’t know.
In any case, since Williams played against the Broncos that day, he has not crossed a rugby league sideline in a competitive capacity.
By the next weekend, he was gone. When anonymous customs officials started calling Ray Hadley’s open line show the following Saturday, saying they had seen Williams board a plane bound for Europe, I was immediately put in mind of my own anonymous call a couple of weeks before.
The reason for the weekend in Apia soon became apparent. SBW had visited Samoan government officials to get a passport, which allowed him to circumvent the French Rugby Union’s import regulations via the Kolpak ruling and sign with Toulon.
“We helped him build up some contacts in the Samoan community for him to get an audience with the king and the prime minister to become the face of tourism Samoa,” said Keith Onslow, the Bulldogs development manager.
“He was learning Samoan from a church minister in Leichhardt. He was exploring his genealogy.”
When Williams arrived in London, he was ushered into the Samoan embassy by the back door to receive his passport. From there, it was onto Toulon and a new career in rugby union. He hasn’t played league since.
Williams is expected – by some at least – to return to our heaving bosom on March 7, 2013, when Sydney Roosters host bitter rivals South Sydney at Allianz Stadium.
There are those who doubt this will actually occur. More of that later.
But first I want to address what we have learned about the nature of sporting celebrity in this century from the last four years. Initially, there was universal outrage about Williams’ “dead of night” (he actually departed during the day) flight from Australia.
But the general mood has not just softened since – it has changed in nature.
Williams’s success in rugby union, in becoming an All Black, has made him the sort of athletic commodity that Nasser no doubt evisaged when he negotiated that deal with Toulon four years ago and orchestrated a covert scheme to get SBW a Samoan passport.
Williams, now 27, has succeeded in becoming an individual brand in a team sport – in a similar fashion, if on a smaller scale, than David Beckham or Michael Jordan. He fronted a Sydney Roosters media conference announcing his (12-month-only) return not in a tricolours polo shirt but in a fancy jacket with a hanky tucked daintily in the pocket.
As you’ll be aware, he plans to box before the season starts, play rugby league, and then probably go play Japanese rugby union instead of taking part in our World Cup.
Yes, the Bulldogs were compensated for his breach of contract in leaving mid-season. But his departure has not just been forgiven – it’s been rewarded.
Like Israel Folau, his time out of rugby league has somehow given him added gravitas and prestige, which we now covet as an endorsement of how great our sport is. His actions set an example for others – not necessarily a good one.
Williams’ return has been termed “a circus” countless times. But circuses most often start on time.
Although Nasser was never quoted, he didn’t dispute reports that had the season started with Canterbury hosting Sydney Roosters, Williams would have boycotted the game because he not want to line the pockets of his former club. Has the game ever known such a militant, individualistic player?
As it stands, many doubt Williams will suit up for round one anyway. He has a pectoral muscle problem, the severity of which is shrouded in mystery.
In November, the ever-quotable Roosters doctor John Orchard told the Telegraph Williams could be out until mid-April.
“We’re not treating round one as a grand final,” Orchard said. “In fact, we’re treating it as the complete opposite. The earliest recovery for this sort of operation is three months to five months. Obviously he’ll be around the mid-point of that when (round one arrives).
“From a medical staff point of view, we have to take the emotion out of it. Obviously round one will be built up as a big occasion, but we need to put the blinkers on and work out if he’s trained adequately, would we let any other player play this particular game (after similar surgery), speak with surgeons and so on.
“We don’t want him to come back early and risk re-injuring it.
“We’ll let him come back when we’re convinced, rather than worry about other factors that are non-medical.”
With more players – such as Benji Marshall – testing the waters of multi-sports careers, Williams departure in the middle of the 2008 NRL season may one day be regarded as somewhat historic.
So do I regret not continuing my conversation with that deep throat? Not paying him, or trying to convince my bosses to do so? It would have been front page news and easily the biggest story of my career…
But no, I have never had one ounce of regret. Paying for stories is just wrong, isn’t it?
Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE