All Blacks center Sonny Bill Williams announced yesterday that he would quit world champions New Zealand to play in Japan, then return to his old stomping ground, Australian rugby league.
Hailed as a “freakish” athlete by national coach Steve Hansen, the 26-year-old called time on a brief, but eventful 17-Test rugby union career, which included helping New Zealand to victory at last year’s Rugby World Cup.
Williams said he had signed with Japanese side Panasonic, in a deal reportedly worth US$1.4 million, and would then switch to an unspecified National Rugby League (NRL) team in Australia.
“This is due to a handshake agreement made a few years ago with an NRL club,” he told reporters. “I am not in a position to elaborate on that.”
Williams, who also juggles a career as a part-time boxer, is widely tipped to join Bondi-based glamor club the Sydney Roosters.
He made his name in the NRL, winning the 2004 premiership with the Canterbury Bulldogs in his rookie season, before controversially walking out on the club four years later and switching to rugby union with Toulon.
In 2010, he turned down a world-record US$5 million offer from the French club and joined the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super Rugby competition, intent on breaking into the All Blacks World Cup squad.
The 1.91m, 110kg center impressed enough to earn his All Black debut against England in November 2010, even though he was a rugby union novice with only a handful of senior games in New Zealand.
Hansen said that, at the time, Williams had limited understanding of the 15-a-side game, but made up for it with his freakish abilities and high skill levels.
He said Williams had since developed his rugby smarts to become a truly world-class player, citing his performances in the recent series whitewash against Ireland.
“While Sonny has been with New Zealand rugby for only a short time, his contribution has been immense,” Hansen said in a statement, adding that he was disappointed at Williams’ departure, but wished him well.
Williams’ management ensured the player signed only one-year contracts after he returned to New Zealand, leaving his options open after the World Cup.
After a year with the Crusaders, when the Christchurch team made the Super Rugby final, he moved to the Waikato Chiefs, who currently lead the competition and are favorites to win their first title.
That would allow Williams to leave New Zealand rugby on a high.
He will not participate in the Rugby Championship, the revamped southern hemisphere competition featuring New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
Williams, who is also the New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion with a career record of five wins, three by knockout, did not rule out the possibility of making yet another code switch and eventually returning to rugby union.
“If things work out, 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.