Rugby

Praying for Sonny Bill – NZ’s Muhammad Ali

Sonny Bill Williams is on the cusp of receiving the love and admiration he has always deserved. About time, too. 

This column isn’t religious. But that doesn’t stop us from occasionally mumbling into the ether about something we’d very much like to happen in the vague hope that, if there is a supreme being, she is having a slow day and might not have anything better to do than assist.

In this instance, we’re mumbling about Sonny Bill Williams. We’d very much like him to hit peak fitness and form in time to go out in a blaze of glory at the Rugby World Cup.

The dude deserves it. He is, after all, New Zealand’s very own Muhammad Ali.

Some will scoff at that – but the parallels with The Greatest undoubtedly exist.

For starters, both were tremendous boxers…

Jokes aside, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that SBW is, in fact, the better human of the two.

For all of Ali’s brilliance and the global adulation it ultimately received, he was hardly atypical in his human frailties. A serial philanderer, Ali fathered nine children to two of his four wives, and several more out of wedlock.

Monogamy certainly wasn’t his thing, with some even suggesting he was a sex addict – but not in a sex pest kind of way, of course. The “foxes” simply fell at the great man’s feet, so #nothimtoo, thankfully.

SBW, by contrast, has married once and seems to be a devoted father to his three kids. Time, obviously, will be the test of that assessment, but, so far, so seemingly good.

But it is the similarities between the pair, rather than the differences, that are most striking. Both, of course, somewhat surprisingly converted to Islam at pivotal points in their careers. And both have made conscientious stands while travelling an arc from hate figure to greatly respected and admired human.

Ali’s stance that he wouldn’t fight in the Vietnam war because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger” was laudable, but he was reviled for it by Middle America at the time.

It was only when public sentiment turned firmly and finally against the war that the bravery of Ali’s stand was fully recognised, and his reputation began to repair.

It’s easy to dismiss SBW’s silent masking tape stand against a bank that was a key sponsor of New Zealand rugby as not in the same league – but that’s not entirely accurate.

Both stands placed personal belief ahead of professional and commercial expediency, challenged accepted norms and stared down the establishment.

Sonny Bill Williams isn’t the greatest athlete of all time – but he is the finest dual code rugby player to have graced the planet.

Williams hasn’t received the same level of belated admiration, but the trail-blazing significance of his actions for athletes who find themselves forced to tacitly endorse things they have no wish to endorse shouldn’t be understated.

Like Ali, Williams was slated for his stance by Joe Public, who perceived him as ungrateful and naïve as to origins of the money that paid his salary – never mind that the additional revenues his brilliance will have attracted will have contributed far more to New Zealand Rugby’s coffers than he has ever extracted.

Being hated on has simply been part of life for SBW.

When he walked out on the Bulldogs after discovering he’d been duped into signing a contract that paid him a fraction of his market value, he was portrayed as a traitor.

When he decided to try to crack the All Blacks, he was perceived as an incompetent charlatan from a lesser code (ditto when he was sent off in a test match for mistiming a tackle).

When he took huge risks by signing only short-term deals in order to pursue multiple sporting goals, he was painted as a selfish mercenary.

Heck, he was somehow even slammed for giving his World Cup medal to a kid, because it showed he didn’t care enough about what the achievement meant.

Through it all, it’s hard to recall the man saying anything negative about anyone, ever.

Unlike Ali, whose greatness was underlined by constant self-proclamation, Williams has always let his deeds speak for themselves.

A ground-breaking athlete on and off the field, he deserves the wholehearted love and admiration of his country.

And now, with the end nigh, he might well be on the cusp of finally receiving it.

At 33, and with the injuries starting to bite, SBW is on a short runway to the World Cup. He’ll likely return to Super Rugby action against the Reds in a week or so and then have another tune-up in the final round match against the Hurricanes.

He’ll then have a maximum of five pre-World Cup All Blacks tests to not only stay healthy, but build to peak form and fitness for Japan.

If he can do that, and produce his brilliant best at the World Cup, it will be yet another remarkable achievement in a remarkable career.

Here’s hoping he pulls it off – because he deserves it.

Sonny Bill Williams isn’t the greatest athlete of all time – but he is the finest dual code rugby player to have graced the planet.

He’s New Zealand’s Ali – hidden in a humble man’s body.

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