Sonny Bill Williams targets an Olympic gold for New Zealand
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Sonny Bill Williams passes for a superstar in this part of the world where rugby holds a rare pre-eminence over all other sports.
When he competes in rugby sevens at the Olympics in Rio de Janiero next month it's likely his light, which shines brightly in New Zealand, will be eclipsed by stars in sports with a bigger international reach.
But few athletes competing in these Olympics could claim to approach Williams' versatility and by the end, if rugby sevens has captured a wider audience, Williams likely will be among its most recognized names.
When New Zealand Rugby appealed to its high-profile players to compete in sevens at Rio, Williams was one of only two All Blacks to answer the call: the other, Liam Messam, didn't make the final cut.
Williams has already to his credit two Rugby World Cup winner's medals, has competed at a Rugby League World Cup and also has collected titles in Super Rugby and Australia's National Rugby League. He has been, also, the New Zealand professional heavyweight boxing champion.
To demonstrate prowess in rugby's three formats — rugby union, rugby league and rugby sevens — and to excel also at boxing, even in the face of moderate opposition, proves that Williams is an athlete of rare scope and talent.
The magnitude of his profile and popularity should have brought him a windfall in endorsements, yet he rarely promotes anything other than charitable causes. And he has made decisions throughout his career which have come at a cost.
As a much younger man he quit a contract in Australian rugby league to play rugby union in France for the Toulon club, which is famous for its lavish salaries. That hardened the view among detractors that he flips from one club or sport to another, pursuing only his own interests.
But Williams, who grew up with his parents and four siblings in subsidized housing in the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert, says his career choices have never been based on financial considerations.
"My manager in my early 20s put me into a bad investment and I was in debt," Williams recently told the New Zealand Herald newspaper. "People thought I was living the dream in Toulon but I had to pay $750,000 to get out of my (rugby league) contract."
Williams recently signed a three-year deal with New Zealand Rugby in the face of more lucrative offers, mainly to pursue his Olympic ambitions.
He was quickly accepted into the team by veteran coach Gordon Tietjens, who recognized him as an athlete uniquely adapted to the modern sevens game. In its infancy, sevens was a game populated by sprinters and, even more recently, by players who mixed speed with size.
Williams may lack outright pace but his strength, fitness and his ability to pass in tackles makes him ideally adapted to New Zealand's current style.
From the earliest stages of his career Williams has been pursued by many club, and as a younger player he allowed fame to turn his head. But he says family and his Muslim faith have given him peace and stability.
"Never in my wildest dreams would that young fella that went to Australia (to play rugby league) be here right now," he told the Herald. "I used to be a bit of a scallywag. I did a lot of bad things and went off course but Allah was with me."
Williams has shrugged off that past but remains a polarizing figure. He is as much a sporting celebrity as New Zealand has at the moment and he bears that responsibility, the calls for autographs and selfies, with good humor and patience. He is known for random acts of kindness which, if he had his way, would go unpublicized.
But some still doubt his commitment to rugby and even question his ability.
While he has often insisted as a clause of his contract the right to continue his boxing career, his feats in the ring haven't won widespread credibility.
Some think he has trifled with the All Blacks jersey, wearing it for the first time in 2010, giving it up after the 2011 World Cup, then returning just in time to play in the 2015 World Cup. He also once rejected selection in the New Zealand rugby league team only to have a change of heart and be reinstated at the expense of another player.
Some see those decisions as signs of capriciousness and self-interest. In fact, they seem consequences of his talent and desire to please: when he returned from rugby union to rugby league in 2012 he did so to honor a handshake agreement made many years before.
Now Williams has the chance to display his talent on a much wider stage. It is an opportunity made sweeter by the fact his sister, Niall, has been chosen for the New Zealand women's teams, meaning two of the four Williams siblings will be in Rio together.