by Paul Kent
This book is written by Paul Kent, himself a rugby league player for Parramatta, now a journalist for The Daily Telegraph and television guest on rugby league shows. The book is unauthorised and has no interviews with Sonny Bill or his personal accounts of events. The author’s position as player and news reporter has given him many insights into Sonny Bill’s time in Australia.
Sonny Ball is unlike the usual book parading triumphant achievements of athletes; rather, it focuses on what went on behind the scenes in the world of player negotiations. The author recounts long and detailed conversations between league officials, and many verbatim quotes from press interviews. These quickly become tedious and I was tempted to skip much of it. The book is not an easy read, but is interesting because it shines a bright light on what goes on beneath the surface of sport.
Sonny Bill Williams grew up in Mount Albert, Auckland. Due to his remarkable physique and athletic ability, the Sydney Bulldogs snapped him up at a young age. He showed such talent that the club made him the centre of their future planning, letting go senior players to make room for his $400K per year five-year contract. Sonny Bill did not do well in Sydney at first, falling into all the traps an unsophisticated, naïve, suddenly very rich, young man was likely to do – run-ins with police for drink driving, urinating in public, and the infamous incident in an hotel toilet with the Australian female Iron Man champion, which was photographed secretly and released to the world.
In Sydney he met Manager Khoder Nasser, and Anthony Mundine an Aboriginal League player turned boxer. These two people have had an enormous influence on the life of Sonny Bill. Nasser made no secret that he was only interested in the financial future of his client and was easily able to out-manoeuvre officials of both rugby league and rugby union, secure in the knowledge that no matter what Sonny Bill did, his fame and talent would ensure other teams would scramble to sign him. Paul Kent has termed this shameless breaking of contracts, this constant scheming for more money, “playing Sonny Ball”.
With three years to go on his contract with the Bulldogs, Sonny Bill left without notice, to play for Toulon rugby club in France, for an alleged $1.5 million dollars per year. This move attracted widespread condemnation from league supporters in Australia. Legal pressure forced him to buy out his contract with the Bulldogs.
In Toulon Sonny Bill had a mixed time. He was badly injured then, desperate to show his worth, returned to play too soon and was forced to take more time off. It was during this period he lived with a Tunisian Muslim family and adopted their Faith, the same Faith as Khoder Nasser and Anthony Mundine.
A call from Graham Henry the All Black coach, suggesting he might like to play rugby union, meant Sonny Bill left a contract for the second time, returning to New Zealand with the aim of making the Rugby World Cup squad in 2011. The money offered was less than he would have earned in Toulon, but his management team arranged for him to follow Mundine into boxing and top up his earnings. His contract with New Zealand Rugby was negotiated with this in mind. It seems likely they were unhappy with the arrangement until they saw the novice, overweight or just plain past-it, opponents he was listed to fight.
After securing a ‘sabbatical’ to play in Japan for $1.2 million for half a season, hugely more than his All Black salary, he did not return as expected, but went to play for the Sydney Roosters. His deal there, plus his Japan salary, would bring in over $2 million. In addition, he stood to earn $150,000 or more from each fight arranged.
His value to New Zealand rugby prompted a bending of the rule regarding overseas players for his selection against Australia when Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were injured. Sonny Bill returned to play for the championship-winning Chiefs in 2014. In two years he had won a World Cup, two Bledisloe Cups, and a Super Rugby title. Paul Kent considers this is success.
At present Sonny Bill is in England with the 2015 All Blacks and it will be interesting to see what role he plays in this and what he does after the tournament is over.
The cover of the book is starkly black and white, and the paper quality seems inferior – somehow this seems in keeping with the story of a supremely gifted athlete, moving in a world of shadowy deals. I am sure there is a very likeable young man behind this and I just wish the book showed more of him.
Author: Paul Kent
Publisher: Macmillan Australia