Sonny Bill Williams was rushed into New Zealand’s Rugby League World Cup squad yesterday after the dual code international controversially reversed a decision to skip the tournament and take a holiday.
In a dramatic 24 hours, Williams initially snubbed the Kiwis by declaring he had “other commitments,” but changed his tune after the squad was announced on Tuesday, saying he wanted to take part and “help the brothers” defend the title they won in 2008.
Rookie Tohu Harris was the victim of Williams’s change of heart, with coach Stephen Kearney dumping the 21-year-old from his 24-man squad to make room for the former All Black.
“It’s been a tough situation, but Sonny brings things to the group that we couldn’t ignore,” said Kearney, who only found out about the U-turn late on Tuesday after publicly announcing his squad for the Oct. 26 to Nov. 30 tournament.
The debacle raised further questions about Williams’ commitment during a career in which he has displayed stunning athletic prowess, but flitted between rugby union, rugby league and boxing seemingly on a whim.
Williams, who started out in rugby league and won the rugby union World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011, said he turned down the Kiwis because he wanted to take a long-awaited break after helping the Sydney Roosters win Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) grand final at the weekend.
“After having some time to really think about how much representing my country means to me, I decided to then put my name forward for selection... I’m here and ready to help the brothers,” he said in a statement on social media.
Williams is currently weighing up whether to stay with the 13-man code or rejoin the All Blacks for a tilt at the 2015 World Cup and the Olympic sevens in 2016. The code-hopping 28-year-old’s decision to join the Kiwis sheds no light on his plans and the player insisted after the grand final that he has simply not made up his mind.
Williams’ lucrative sideline as a journeyman boxer further clouds his future, with New Zealand media reporting he is considering a heavyweight bout against 47-year-old Australian Bob Mirovic in February before the new season begins.
The Dominion Post’s Duncan Johnstone said Williams had “belittled” rugby league by expecting the Kiwis to tear up their teamsheet and welcome him with open arms.
“Williams’ change of mind is an indictment on himself and his management,” he wrote. “Have they suddenly become aware that there’s a World Cup on?”
Despite similar concerns about Williams’s “amateurish” dithering, former Kiwi international Tony Kemp said the player’s presence would make New Zealand favorites for the World Cup and lift the profile of the entire tournament.
“He’s the best player in the world, he’s got to be in the side ... what it’s going to show is that Sonny Bill Williams is bigger than rugby league,” Kemp told Radio Livesport.
Online polls showed fans were in two minds about the latest drama surrounding Williams, who has polarized opinion since walking out on an NRL contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008.
A survey on the Fairfax Media Web site found almost 60 percent of respondents did not believe he should be included in the Kiwis squad.
A New Zealand Herald poll had about one third of fans against him and one third for, with 31 percent clicking “I’ve lost interest in the SBW show.”