Three games, two defeats, one try and a fair bit of frustration: Sonny Bill Williams has not made the smoothest of starts to life in Japan’s Top League.
The All Blacks center and New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion, one of rugby union’s most bankable stars, was expected to take Japan by storm when he began his lucrative stint this month.
It has not worked out that way so far, and Williams could not suppress his irritation after the Panasonic Wild Knights went down 32-22 to Toshiba Brave Lupus, despite his debut try, on Saturday.
“I just felt really disappointed and frustrated,” he said, according to Kyodo news agency. “I just want to pay back my teammates and the Panasonic supporters. They have shown a lot of faith in me and a lot of love, and when we lose I feel the weight on my shoulders.”
For the World Cup-winner, who will join Australia’s National Rugby League when he finishes in Japan, it has been a difficult step down from Super 15 and Tests to the Top League, especially as regards refereeing.
“That was blatant,” he said on Saturday, when asked about an incident when he was tackled in mid-air. “I was a bit frustrated by some of the calls, but that’s how the game is played here. You’ve got to bite the bullet and move on and concentrate on doing something else better. If you get into a mindset of frustration, it can have a snowball effect.”
At least he is well paid. Reports have put Williams’s price tag at US$1.2 million for his short stay, or US$100,000 a game unless the Wild Knights reach the finals series. So far, he has earned US$1,350 for each minute he has played.
However, apart from Williams’ teething problems, the jury is also out on how much his visit is helping the sport in Japan, which is desperately trying to raise interest and standards before hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Only 2,200 turned up for his debut in Sapporo, and 2,608 watched his first game in Tokyo. Saturday’s clash drew a crowd of 12,300 — about half the number who watched Japan’s under-20 Women’s World Cup soccer match with South Korea last month.
Despite Williams, attendances at Top League games, which are not televised, are down for the third year running. Such figures will make uncomfortable reading for the Japan Rugby Football Union.
Munehiko Harada, a sports marketing expert at Waseda University, questioned whether Williams represented value for money, and said a better way to raise standards would be sending young players to stronger leagues abroad.
“It’s very expensive to pay US$100,000 for one game ... It’s a very expensive purchase to spend US$1.2 million for 2,200 spectators, no media reports and no brand image for Panasonic,” Harada said. “For Japanese rugby, it’s much better to spend money for young, potential players and send them overseas to gain experience.”
However, national team coach Eddie Jones said he was sure Williams would draw new fans to Japanese rugby, which is competing with home-grown baseball, soccer and sumo wrestling.
“The quality of rugby is always important in attracting spectators and Sonny is world class,” the former Australia coach said.
Japanese rugby certainly needs a boost. In seven Rugby World Cups, the Brave Blossoms have won just one game, against Zimbabwe in 1991. Despite this, Jones has been set the unenviable task of taking them into the top 10 by 2015.