All Blacks superstar Sonny Bill Williams sat in a Tokyo restaurant in late October on a quiet night during the Rugby World Cup, launching questions across the table at Toronto Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott.
There was a fascinating multimillion-dollar deal taking shape. Toronto’s transatlantic rugby league club was on the brink of signing the world famous New Zealand player – a man who could help kick off its first season in England’s top-tier Super League in February with a resounding bang. Those talking about the deal were already equating its magnitude to David Beckham joining Major League Soccer’s L.A. Galaxy.
That two-man dinner meeting included zero talk about money. The Wolfpack had been having conversations on and off with Williams’s agent for two years, and now the deal was actually nearing a reality. The towering Kiwi requested Toronto’s coach fly over to meet him in Japan so he could learn everything there was to know about the Wolfpack from the man who leads its players every day.
Williams’s New Zealand team had lost a semi-final heartbreaker to England in the World Cup the night before in Yokohama, with McDermott in the crowd. The 34-year-old Auckland native was mulling his next career move, and this would be an adventure – switching back from rugby union to rugby league, and taking his talents to the Northern Hemisphere.
Williams queried Toronto’s veteran English coach on everything from the Wolfpack’s defensive and offensive strategies, to their training regimens, philosophies and weekly schedules.
“He was very gracious and humble and apologized for machine-gunning me with questions,” McDermott recalled with a laugh. “He wanted to make sure he could blend in with the Wolfpack as fast as possible. Never once did I get any sense that he had his collars up saying ‘hey I’m a big deal here.’”
The New Zealander, who measures 6 foot 3 and 238 pounds, has starred at the highest levels in both codes of rugby, professionally and internationally. He earned two rugby-league championships in Australia’s National Rugby League. He won World Cups with the All Blacks in 2015 and 2011, along with the bronze medal he was about to earn in Japan. The athletic Williams even boxed professionally seven times, winning all of his heavyweight bouts. He’s a devout Muslim, and his profile extends way beyond the sport, as evidenced by his 1.7 million followers across his Twitter and Instagram feeds.
The Wolfpack is an ambitious club born just three years ago. It made its debut in the bottom tier of English rugby league, winning promotion to the second-tier Betfred Championship in Year 1, before winning promotion to the Super League just last month. A talent with a monster brand such as Williams could help the Wolfpack muscle up for Super League competition, and stimulate its brand along with the sport within Toronto’s cluttered sports market. Even around the world.
McDermott had just one question for Williams during that dinner.
“I said ‘I’ve got to ask you this Sonny – and I don’t intent to offend you – but are you coming for the sexy headlines, the big money and profile that come with this deal, or are you coming to go through those tough moments on the field with your teammates?'" McDermott recalled. “His answer was outstanding, and I won’t tell you exactly what he said, but I’ll summarize. He’s all about earning the right to play, the respect of his family and of our players. He knows to do that he has to work harder than anyone else.”
McDermott, reached in England hours after the Wolfpack officially announced Williams’s two-year deal, shared his recollections of that dinner via a phone interview on Thursday. The signing made news worldwide. The Wolfpack won’t confirm the terms, but it is reported to be worth some $9-million Canadian in total, with some outlets calling it the richest deal in Super League history. It’s a lot of money for a club that is also footing the bill for opposing teams’ travel to Canada and is not – at least for its first Super League season – getting a share of broadcasting revenue.
Super League allows for each team to have two franchise players with all but a small chunk of their salaries counted outside the salary cap.
The Wolfpack will introduce Williams in England next week, at a news conference slated for Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal FC. He will meet his new Wolfpack teammates as the English players start training camp in Manchester. For immigration reasons, most international players do their preseason training outside of Britain, so Williams will train in Australia and report to England in January before Super League matches begin in February.
The Wolfpack has even been approached about a reality series on Netflix, which could begin filming this season.
Williams is a fit and fierce ball carrier with a talent for dishing the ball off to teammates as multiple muscled tacklers hang off him. He began his career in rugby league, but has frequently moved between codes and played the past five seasons in rugby union. McDermott says rugby league is more aerobic and Williams could have 80-90 involvements a game for the Wolfpack, compared to his 20-30 each match in rugby union.
The outspoken coach has witnessed various efforts by Super League to grow its popularity, but he thinks examples of big investments – such as this from Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle – will move the needle more.
“It’s going to prove to some other clubs that these big, big deals can be done if you have an owner who is innovative, resourceful and has [the determination] to go out and do it,” McDermott said.
With the Wolfpack’s first 10 matches scheduled abroad, because of the Canadian winter, Williams isn’t likely to set foot in Toronto until the home opener at Lamport Stadium on April 18. But news of his arrival is already among the biggest topics buzzing throughout Super League.
“It’s the biggest news Super League has had in 20 years,” said Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble. “We moved heaven and earth to get the biggest name in rugby and we’ve done it. It’s really a major signing, and it’s a reflection of how well we want to perform in the Super League and what we want to do for the game of rugby league in the Northern hemisphere. He’s built like a mountain, and people are going to love watching him.”
Bob Hunter, Wolfpack chairman and CEO, was at Super League team meetings in England this week and said the signing was a hot topic. Many Super League clubs project spikes in ticket sales when Williams and the Wolfpack visit, and are also projecting a jump in the number of British fans who will fly to Toronto for a game. Hunter said one team reportedly has 1,500 fans committed for an extended weekend trip to Canada.
“The combination of playing in the Super League, and having Sonny Bill Williams changes our sponsorship opportunities dramatically, and the interest in tickets,” Hunter said.