The World Rugby eligibility rule change came too late for Sonny Bill Williams, and it may have cost the code the chance to see the former All Black wearing Manu Samoa’s blue at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Now 36, Williams is on the cusp of entering the final chapter of his athletic career as he “takes the itch away” to give boxing a real crack.
But Williams is more than a sportsman these days. After hanging up the boots, he went to the comment box at Stan’s Australian broadcaster, and completely detached from the industry has used his platform to advocate on behalf of asylum seekers.
He is also a champion for Pasifika. In an interview with stuff from Sydney, Williams reiterated his call for more Pasifika/Māori coaches at the All Blacks level, and welcomed Moana Pasifika’s introduction to Super Rugby with an emphatic “it was about time”.
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It naturally begs the question: if World Rugby’s new entry rules had been in effect during his All Blacks career, he would have been happy to leave the black jersey after the 2015 Rugby World Cup – his second – in view of on playing for Manu Samoa four years later ?
“One hundred percent,” Williams said. “I pretty much did it” [representing Samoa] but go back to Tana [Umaga] and what he was trying to achieve with the Blues.
“Obviously we didn’t achieve everything we wanted, but I was in that space being very aware of what we could represent and what we could achieve as Polynesians and Māori. So yes, I would have cherished that idea for sure.”
Granted, it’s only a hypothetical question, but it would be a mistake to view the answer as meaningless. Williams’ reputation with Pasifika players on both sides of the Tasman remains high, and his intense support for Pasifika rugby is fueled in part by a sense of injustice that has long prevented rugby politics from fairly representing the island nations on the big stage.
“No one wants the All Blacks to beat Tonga by 100 points because that doesn’t reflect the competitiveness and quality of the players Tonga has produced,” Williams said.
“If we had a more competitive game, more high-profile players playing in it, you’d get more money in the game. We all know the politics in sports, especially in the islands, but it’s a step in the right direction [the eligibility change].
“I think it was the given World Cup in France [in 2007], where Fiji just looked incredible [they beat Wales to qualify for the quarterfinal before losing to eventual winner South Africa].
“To me, that was a representation of what island footy is all about.”
Then there is the issue of Pasifika/Māori in the All Blacks level coaching ranks. In one of the last acts like All Black, Williams brought up the subject during a press conference. He went back to it in his book You can’t stop the sun shining, and when stuff calling it in connection with Clayton McMillan’s coaching philosophy of ‘treating everyone the same but different’, it rekindled the fire in Williams.
“The best coaches I’ve had had that personal touch,” Williams said. “They are people people. There are 10 different guys in the room of different ethnicities who play at 90-95 percent of their capacity every weekend.
Sonny Bill Williams and Craig Foster ask the Australian government to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees.
“Talk, for example, about the islanders. When we give, we give our whole heart and soul. But when we feel that something isn’t right or that something isn’t right, we withdraw.
“A lot of these coaches need to understand that. The reason I pushed for Polynesian or Māori coaches in the All Blacks is because so many of us play for them. If you need that 90 to 95 percent performance every week, you have to believe them in what you do, in what you are as a man.
“I know from experience that we have respect first and foremost for the man and then what he has to offer as a coach. Many of the great coaches I have coached understand this, especially when it comes to islanders.”
Moana Pasifika represents another step forward for Pasifika players. No one is kidding themselves about the challenges they face in Super Rugby, but Williams sees their participation as part of the bigger picture.
“It’s about time,” he said. “I don’t understand the politics of rugby, and I understand there were a few teams competing for that spot [Moana Pasifika and Kanaloa Hawaii], but it’s just great to see.
“It’s just amazing to watch a team from the Pacific Islands get pushed into that space. You know, it’s been a long time. We represent so much on the field, but we lack that representation off the field.
“It’s a change of time, hopefully, and God willing inshallah we can see a lot more of this stuff.”