Sonny Bill Williams sought on Wednesday to explain his dramatic late bid to join New Zealand’s Rugby League World Cup squad, amid accusations of thinking he is bigger than the game.
The former All Black initially snubbed the Kiwis’ World Cup defence, telling selectors he had “other commitments”, only to undergo a change of heart a few hours after the squad was announced on Tuesday and tell coach Stephen Kearney he wanted to take part.
The U-turn left Kearney scrambling to rejig his 24-man squad and facing the agonising prospect of telling a player he had been dumped from the October 26-November 30 tournament to make way for Williams.
“Our thinking has always been that if Sonny was available, he would be part of the team,” Kearney said in a statement. “We are now exploring options around Sonny’s possible inclusion in the tournament.”
The debacle raised further questions about Williams’ commitment during a career in which he has displayed stunning athletic prowess but flitted between rugby union, rugby league and boxing seemingly on a whim.
Williams, who started out in league and won a rugby union World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011, said he turned down the Kiwis because he wanted to take a long-awaited holiday after helping the Sydney Roosters win the National Rugby League grand final on the weekend.
“After having some time to really think about how much representing my country means to me, I decided to then put my name forward for selection,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“Now I know the squad’s been picked and I understand if I can’t be a part of it, but I’m here and ready to help the brothers if they want me.”
Williams is currently weighing up whether to stay with the 13-man code or rejoin the All Blacks for a tilt at the 2015 World Cup and the Olympic sevens in 2016.
The Dominion Post’s Duncan Johnstone said the code-hopping 28-year-old had “belittled” rugby league by expecting the Kiwis tear up their teamsheet and welcome him with open arms because he belatedly deigned to join them.
“Williams is about to test the theory that no player is bigger than a team... Kearney should make a stand and simply tell Williams ‘sorry mate, you’re too late’,” he wrote.
Former Kiwi international Tony Kemp had similar concerns, but was in no doubt Williams would be accommodated, despite his “amateurish” dithering.
“He’s the best player in the world, he’s got to be in the side... what it’s going to show is that Sonny Bill Williams is bigger than rugby league,” he told Radio Livesport.
Kemp said Williams’s presence would make New Zealand favourites for the World Cup and lift the profile of the entire tournament, which is being held in England and Wales.
Online polls also showed fans were in two minds about the latest drama surrounding Williams, who has polarised opinion since walking out on an NRL contract with league’s Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008.
A survey on the Fairfax Media website found almost 60 per cent of respondents did not believe he should be included in the Kiwis squad.
A New Zealand Herald poll had about one-third of fans against him and one third for, with 31 per cent clicking “I’ve lost interest in the SBW show”.