The difference between great athletes and iconic ones is in being able to create signature moments.
Sonny Bill Williams’s moment came after the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Williams’s All Blacks had just won and were slowly circling the field. A teenage fan tried to run out to the celebrating team. He was tackled by security and landed at Williams’s feet.
Rather than walk on, Williams picked the boy up, dusted him off and said, “I’ll take you back to your parents.”
Once he reached the stands, Williams took off his winners’ medal and hung it around the kid’s neck. It was a Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial come to life.
Williams, then 30, was already an electrifying and often polarizing star in rugby. But that gesture made him an international sensation.
“I seen a child that was a little bit hurt and it kinda touched me on my inside,” Williams said later. “I just done what I thought was right. I guess it blew a bit out of proportion.”
In part because of that blowing out of proportion, Williams is on the verge of becoming the richest player in rugby, and in just about the most unlikely place to do that – Canada.
The Toronto Wolfpack, rugby’s only transatlantic team, will soon begin its first season in the British-based Super League. Created from whole cloth three years ago, the Wolfpack has a negligible fanbase, little infrastructure and zero history. The ownership is a murky affair fronted by an Australian mining investor, but someone in that group clearly has money to burn.
Because this franchise isn’t a business yet. It isn’t even a charity. From the accounting perspective, it’s more like an incinerator.
In its first season, the Wolfpack assembled a group of adventurous, money-motivated pros to play in a third-division league populated largely by part-timers. It routinely annihilated the competition.
After promotion, the club required two runs at the second division before getting it right. Now in the top tier, it had talked about doing something splashier. Not just a top signing, but a rock-star signing.
“Our club would want to have a name that’s absolutely international,” Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott said a few weeks ago. “Very much [what] David Beckham did for Major League Soccer.”
In order to get their rock star, they are willing to wildly overpay.
The Super League’s (plainly malleable) salary cap is a little more than $3-million. According to reports, Toronto is offering Williams a two-year deal in the neighbourhood of $9-million total. Should he accept, Williams would become the highest-earning rugby player on the planet.
This isn’t franchise building. It isn’t about creating something sustainable. The goal is making as much noise as possible and hoping for a years-long echo.
Williams’s role in this is hitman-for-hire. Since he holds all the power in this negotiation, he has to decide if that suits him.
It’s not exactly a stretch. He’s bounced around for the entirety of his career, often burning bridges in the process. He’s excelled at both versions of the sport – rugby union and rugby league – but has not played the 13-a-side version in several years.
Williams is 34 – old by rugby standards. He’s been a heavyweight boxer. He has a reputation as an immense talent who likes to pick his spots. He has always showed up for New Zealand, but somewhat less so for his pro clubs. Injuries have been a pernicious problem. Now he’s considering a bit of lucrative slumming before he wraps things up.
The Beckham analogy fits almost perfectly here. Beckham was not quite over the hill when he arrived in America, but was definitely cresting it.
Beckham spent most of the first year in the trainer’s room. Once returned to full fitness, he began working part-time in Italy. Though his team eventually became a winner, he was not the engine of that success. He never really amounted to much in L.A. as a player.
Looking back on it, Beckham accomplished one important thing in North America – he arrived.
His MLS legacy rests entirely on his decision to bless a backwater with his presence. From MLS’s perspective, it was money well spent.
It isn’t the league it thought it might become when Beckham showed up more than a decade ago. But had he not done so, there might not be a league at all.
Should a deal be agreed, that’s what Williams can do in Toronto. He gives rugby a face and a chance to leapfrog the wretched Argos of the CFL as the city’s No. 5 team.
Williams doesn’t have to be any good. The Wolfpack doesn’t have to win. That’s not how this works for an outsider team playing a sport few locals know anything about, never mind follow.
Williams will be paid millions to create buzz. If you aren’t a rugby fan and have gotten this far in the column, he’s already doing his job.
Will it work? That depends on Williams’s personality. He is unlike Beckham in that his brand would not arrive in North America fully articulated. All people know about him now is that he is famous and that he probably shouldn’t be ending up here.
But they will respond to the superlatives – two-time world champion, All Black, highest paid. The punters love a big box-office number.
That earns him a few shots at turning curiosity into interest. It’s more important that Williams shine in front of a microphone than on a field.
He seems to have that part down. In interviews, he comes off as a charming knucklehead who speaks the international language of uplift. “I try to be where my feet are,” and suchlike. He is an enormous man with a gentle physical presence. Even his name sticks in your head.
That’s why the Toronto Wolfpack is willing to pay him so much for the simple act of arrival.
If he decides to come, Sonny Bill Williams wouldn’t just be the best rugby player in North American pro history. He’d be the very first who mattered.