rugby

Williams ends All Blacks career, to play rugby in Japan

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Associated Press
7/8/2012 11:58:44 PM
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams has confirmed he will play rugby in Japan on a lucrative short-term contract starting later this year, likely ending his involvement in international rugby.

Williams quashed some speculation about his future when he told a news conference in Hamilton on Monday that he will join Japan's Panasonic rugby club on a 12-match deal at the end of the current Super 15 season.

He said he is also in negotiations to return to Australia's National Rugby League in 2013, but no deal has been signed.

After his time in Japan, Williams will have played in three professional sports -- rugby, rugby league and boxing -- on three continents. His next professional boxing bout is expected to be in South Africa.

Australian media has speculated Williams will receive up to $1.2 million for his short stint with the Panasonic Wild Knights and could receive more than $800,000 to rejoin the National Rugby League that he quit in 2008. He has been linked to the Sydney Roosters club.

Williams said his eventual return to league had been agreed on a handshake.

"It goes back to pretty much not breaking something that I've told someone that I'd do," he said. "I've chosen my path and now I've got to walk it.

"I knew that I was going overseas next year and they (gave) me an offer and at first I turned it down," he added. "But they came back with an offer that I just pretty much couldn't refuse."

The Japan rugby season starts in September, meaning Williams will play his last rugby matches in New Zealand for the Waikato Chiefs over the final weeks of the Super 15. He will not be considered for selection for the All Blacks team which contests the inaugural four-nation Rugby Championships.

"One day I would love to come back (to New Zealand) but in saying that I'm not going to hold my breath..." Williams said. "To be honest, I feel I've found my place here with the Chiefs, with the boys, but it just goes back to I've given someone my word.

"This was a while ago and I've had to go on with that even though it's tough."

While Williams won the admiration of many All Blacks fans for his athleticism in his 15-test career, he never wholly won their affection. His refusal to sign with the New Zealand Rugby Union for more than a year at a time suggested he was never fully committed to the All Blacks and was leaving himself open to consider other offers.

His insistence on a clause in his contract which allowed him to pursue his nascent professional boxing career while still playing for New Zealand also argued to many fans that he didn't regard the All Blacks jersey with the reverence expected of New Zealand players.

While rugby has been a professional sport in New Zealand since 1995 it has still been driven by a strong amateur ethos. Principles such as the sacrifice of individual reward for the team good have a strong hold on New Zealanders.

Leading New Zealand players have frequently given up lucrative overseas offers for the mere prospect of playing for the All Blacks. In that environment, Williams was seen to represent a player much more focused on financial opportunities than on the perceived honour of playing for the All Blacks.

He was one of the brightest young stars in Australian rugby league from 2004 to 2008 when he walked out on his contract with the Bulldogs to play rugby for the French club Toulon. His sudden and unannounced departure for the famously big-spending French club, reportedly for more than $1 million, earned him a five-year ban from the NRL which will expire at the start of next season.

Williams made it clear during his two years at Toulon, where he was coached by former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, that he wanted to play for the All Blacks and in 2010 he signed with the New Zealand union. He made his test debut later that year, playing in the All Blacks victories over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

He played for the Canterbury Crusaders in the 2011 Super 15 tournament but transferred this year to the Waikato Chiefs. Williams was to be one of the stars of the New Zealand team which won the Rugby World Cup last year but he made most of his appearances from the reserves bench and played only a few minutes in the tournament's crucial playoff rounds.

His appearance in New Zealand's third test against Ireland late last month was his 15th and likely his last for the All Blacks. It was also possibly his best. He scored two first half tries and he showed he was coming to grips with the finer points of rugby union after a slow transition from rugby league.

His most recent performance for the Chiefs against the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super 15 also showed Williams at his best and worst. He scored a second half try which possibly couldn't have been scored by any other back in world rugby, taking on the defensive line alone and crashing through five tacklers before reaching out for the line.

But in the final seconds of the match, Williams took on the line again and his refusal to pass with two players unmarked outside him possibly cost the Chiefs a try which could have drawn the match.

Williams will continue to play for the Chiefs through the playoffs stages of the Super 15 but will not be considered for selection for the All Blacks team for the inaugural Rugby Championship starting later this month.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen refused to rule out the possibility Williams would play again for the All Blacks.

"He came to New Zealand rugby two years ago as a convert player (from rugby league) and was similar to Brad Thorn in that regard," Hansen said. "Sonny had high level skills and freakish abilities without a fully developed game.

"This season we have seen the birth of Sonny as a rugby player with his game understanding complementing his array of skills," he added. "His performance in the test series against Ireland showed that he was world class.

Most of Williams' career choices in rugby, rugby league and boxing are seen to have been influenced by his flamboyant manager Khoder Nasser, who also manages Australian professional boxer Anthony Mundine. Like Mundine, Williams is a convert to Islam.

Sonny Bill Williams  (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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