Rio 2016: Sonny Bill Williams a tough man with soft centre

A marque name for the All Blacks has to see off Fiji to keep to normal high standards

He’s an offload machine, a type of flesh and blood magnet who pulls tacklers towards him and then wriggles his arms free to somehow lay off the ball to set up a play when others are vacuum wrapped by defending players or in a heap.

But even for a rugby player as feted as the sporting polymath Sonny Bill Williams, stretching himself once more across another sporting canvass must be a challenge.

Becoming an All Black is a life's ambition. It is enough for most of the players that pull on the New Zealand shirt to do the Haka once in their lifetime. But when the Olympics invited rugby Sevens into the family for the first time SBW couldn't help but reach for the stars one more time.

Sprawling network

Rugby league, rugby union, heavyweight boxing and now Olympic rugby Sevens, Williams continues to break new ground when the Kiwis lineout on Tuesday against Japan in the Deodoro complex, a sprawling network of venues a few miles inland from the ribbons of sand at Ipanema and Copacabana.


For the Williams clan this is also a family affair as the genetic material was disbursed fairly around the Williams children. SBW’s sister: Niall is on the women’s New Zealand teams.

SBW's inclusion in the 12-strong squad gives him a chance to add an Olympic medal to his two Rugby World Cup-winner's medals and his titles in Super Rugby and Australia's National Rugby League.

Rugby was last contested at the Olympics – in its 15-a-side form – 92 years ago when the United States beat France in the gold medal match, making Rio an historic venture too.

A notable omission is of Williams's former All Blacks team-mate Liam Messam who had left the 15-man game to concentrate on Olympic selection. Brothers Reiko and Akira Ioane are in town with SBW and part of a New Zealand side that has won the World Sevens Series 12 times since it was created in 1999. But one of the epiphanies of the Olympic Games is Fiji, who are hot favourites to win their first Olympic medal of any description and talented enough to deny SBW gold.

There is little doubt that Sonny Bill is the star of the show. He is the gold-plated name on the New Zealand team, one of the iconic figures of the tournament who appears to be able to carve out a professional career in whatever sport he chose.

From 2009 to 2013, the 31-year-old boxed professionally six times, winning all six of his heavyweight bouts before suspending his boxing career to focus on rugby.

He resurrected his boxing career in early 2015 and along that road became the New Zealand Professional Boxing Association (NZPBA) heavyweight champion and World Boxing Association (WBA) international heavyweight champion.

Tough man

He said that boxing made him much more confident and a mentally tougher athlete and was good off-season training. He is the archetypal Kiwi tough man, who in 2008 converted to Islam, when he was playing for Toulon in France.

That arrived after a number of public indiscretions including being caught in a compromising position with Australian model and iron woman Candice Falzon.

“Those things have made me who I am today, I wouldn’t change that,” he has said. He is the first Muslim to play rugby for New Zealand.

But it was at last year's World Cup that the Williams melted the hearts of thousands with an extraordinary act of generosity. When the All Blacks were doing their lap of honour after beating Australia in the final a 14-year-old fan Charlie Line was, as Williams put it, "smoked" with a rugby tackle by an over enthusiastic security guard. Williams saw the incident and intervened before handing the stunned youngster his winner's medal.

So there is a soft part in there somewhere. Not that Japan today will see any of that.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times