The New Zealand Rugby League was on Thursday accused of lacking integrity and pandering to the whims of Sonny Bill Williams after belatedly adding the superstar to the World Cup squad.
“Day of shame for NZ rugby league” roared the New Zealand Herald’s back page following Wednesday’s decision to dump rookie Tohu Harris from the Kiwis’ 24-man squad for Williams after the former All Black made himself available at the last minute.
Williams, who is weighing up whether to return to rugby union or stay with league, only changed his mind about going to the October 26-November 30 tournament after the squad had been announced after previously declaring he planned to go on holiday.
Former Kiwis coach Graham Lowe said the handling of the situation resembled “amateur hour”, while Harris declared himself “bitterly disappointed” at having the chance to represent his country taken away.
“I was very much looking forward to going, however I understand the decision that has been made and hope I get another opportunity to play for the Kiwis in the future,” he said.
Williams, who on Wednesday night added the Sydney Roosters’ player of the year award to the National Rugby League championship he won with the club on the weekend, apologised to Harris.
“I’m really sorry about the Tohu situation it was never my intention I just followed my heart, now I promise I’ll play with all of it,” he tweeted.
Herald columnist Chris Rattue said Williams should not have been included at Harris’s expense.
“The axing of Harris from the Kiwis’ World Cup squad a day after his selection, for sport’s No1 narcissist Sonny Bill Williams, is, in my opinion disgusting,” Rattue wrote.
He added: “Sport loves to claim it stands for fine ideals when we all should know that it is often a ruthless, cynical business... Camp SBW [Williams] hold the power, and wield it disdainfully while weak men fall at their feet.”
Radio Sport commentator Brendan Telfer said Harris’ axing was a “brutal decision” but reflected the reality that Williams is one of the world’s best players and significantly boosts the Kiwis’ chances of defending the title they won in 2008.
“I don’t know how much integrity there is in sport anyway these days, it seems to be something that was swept out the door long ago and this is another example of it,” he said.
The Dominion Post’s David Long said the howls of outrage would have been equally loud had Williams been refused a place in the squad, denting New Zealand’s chances in the tournament, which is being held in England and Wales.
“They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t,” he wrote, pointing out that Williams’ prevarication had put selectors in a difficult position.
The code-hopping 28-year-old is expected to announce by the end of the month whether he will stay with league or rejoin the All Blacks for a tilt at the 2015 World Cup and the Olympic sevens in 2016.