Sonny Bill Williams says he is 'trapped by a debt of honour' after moving to Japanese rugby league
09:29 GMT, 9 July 2012
Sonny Bill Williams may have anticipated a fan backlash from his decision to quit the All Blacks rugby team to pursue more lucrative opportunities in Japanese rugby and Australian rugby league.
At a news conference on Monday at which he announced his imminent departure for Japan – where he will earn $1.2 million for 12 matches with the Panasonic Wild Knights – and Australia's National Rugby League, Williams portrayed himself as a man trapped by a debt of honour.
Williams told reporters he agreed on a handshake several years ago to eventually return to NRL and now had no choice but to honor that pledge. Showing every sign of regret he said 'I've chosen my path, now I've got to walk it.'
New start: Sonny Bill Williams will move to Japan to play rugby league
Williams said “in a perfect world” he would remain in New Zealand with the All Blacks and his current Super 15 team the Waikato Chiefs where, he said, 'I kinda felt like I'd found my place.'
'But it just goes back to (the fact) I've given someone my word,' he said.
'This was a while ago and I've had to go on with it even though it was tough.'
Williams' regret may be somewhat allayed by the possibility that, with the largest-ever contract awarded to a foreign player in Japan and the $800,000 he is expected to command in his first season in the NRL, he will become the first Australasian rugby player in either code to earn $2 million in a year.
/07/09/article-2170838-0F12262700000578-833_468x332.jpg” width=”468″ height=”332″ alt=”Switching codes: Williams will move to rugby league” class=”blkBorder” />
Switching codes: Williams will move to rugby league
Williams declared his interest in playing for the All Blacks while at Toulon and in 2010 he was signed to a contract by the New Zealand Rugby Union which saw him make his test debut, against England, within months. Few players in the 107-year history of the world's most successful rugby team have earned a jersey more easily or tossed it away more casually.
Williams won admirers for his raw athleticism, his speed and power. But he won little affection from many All Blacks fans. His refusal to sign more than a one-year contract emphasized the fact, proved on Monday that he was always open to better offers.
He seemed not to understand the enormous value New Zealanders place on the All Blacks jersey and he brought the polarizing nature of celebrity to a team that is also a national institution.
Williams was never far from the spotlight: pursuing his nascent professional boxing career – he holds the New Zealand professional heavyweight title – or dating the 18-year-old daughter of a former New Zealand rugby league star. He always gave the impression that playing for the All Blacks was a station in his career, not its destination.
Fans were always ready to celebrate his ability, though he grappled for a long time for rugby's complexity after league's simplicity. He was a member of the New Zealand team that won the Rugby World Cup last year, though he made most of his appearances from the bench.
Jack of all trades: Williams has tried his hand at boxing
His 15th and final test for the All Blacks, against Ireland last month, was also likely his best: he scored two tries and showed an ability, absent for much his career, to create play for others.
But his departure was anticipated. Much as New Zealand rugby would like to have kept him, it recognized that he would leave as soon as his price was found.
Famous shirt: Williams won't play for the All Blacks again
'They came to me and gave me an offer and at first I turned it down,' Williams said of the offer from Japan. “But they came back with an offer that I pretty much couldn't refuse.'
He stressed that he took a pay cut when he left Toulon to play in New Zealand.
'If it was about the money then I would have just stayed in France where I was getting pretty good coin,' he said.
The New Zealand Rugby Union sought to make the best of Williams' departure and said he would be welcomed back if he ever chose to return. Williams suggested that was unlikely.
'If things work I'd like to one day come back. But I'm not going to hold my breath because there are good players coming up,' he said. 'In a perfect world, yes but it is a pretty difficult situation and I just have to make the most of it.'
All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter, who has turned down a number of large offers to remain in New Zealand, showed no bitterness at Williams' departure.
'It's a real shame,' Carter said. 'Watching his progression over the last couple of years, he'd turned into an awesome rugby player. It's sad to see him go but I'm sure he'll be successful in whatever he does and I wish him well.'