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League's most hated player?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 - 7:00 AM
Source: SportsFan
Author: Daniel Ramus

Sonny Bill Williams was one of the most talented forwards to ever play in the NRL, but he will forever be remembered for possibly the most treacherous act in Australian sporting history.

The context

In March 2007, Williams had agreed to a new deal with Canterbury for a further five years, worth an estimated $450,000 per season, which would keep him at the club from 2008-2012.

Williams was the star player for the Bulldogs in 2008. At the end of the 2007 season, the club lost its other two big-name forwards - Mark O'Meley and Willie Mason - to the Sydney Roosters, and halfback Brent Sherwin had signed with English Super League club Castleford. As a result, the onus was very much on Williams, then 22, to take a leadership role at a relatively young age so the club could rebuild into a premiership contender.

SBW had his differences with the club in the months leading up to his walkout. Reports suggested the Kiwi international was after more money given the sudden departure of Mason had freed up some space in the club's salary cap, and that he was furious that the club made him admit publicly he had problems with alcohol in 2007.

The theory

The main theory was Williams had been brainwashed by his controversial new manager Khoder Nasser, also the manager of outspoken boxer Anthony Mundine, who had supposedly driven him to the decision to break his contract.

In June 2008, Williams announced publicly that he would see out his contract with the Bulldogs, saying: "I now have a better understanding of the direction the club is heading and there's no question it's something I want to be a part of."

The betrayal

On July 26, 2008, just two days before being due to play for the Bulldogs, Williams boarded a plane to France - not even a year into a five-year contract - without telling a soul at Canterbury. He left to take up a rugby union career with French Top 14 club Toulon.

The fallout

Williams's unannounced departure sparked an absolute circus in Australia. Canterbury had vowed to stand up for their rights, given Williams had signed a contract, which, in CEO Todd Greenberg's words, had "absolutely no get-out clause".

Canterbury captain Andrew Ryan admitted he had sensed changes in Williams's thinking leading up to his departure, and questioned whether Sonny was "man enough" to make his own decisions. Coach Steve Folkes gave the impression he felt sympathy towards the whole situation rather than anger, saying that Sonny had simply let everyone down.

The Bulldogs didn't win another game in 2008 after Williams left the club, and ended up finishing with the wooden spoon.

The backlash

The incident sparked heavy reactions from various individuals within the rugby league media.

Leading Channel Nine commentator Phil Gould launched an attack on NRL CEO David Gallop in a heated interview on Triple M radio, questioning the NRL's unabated legal attack on Williams.

Former hardman Mark Geyer, who appears on Channel Nine program The Sunday Roast, labelled Williams's walkout a "dog act".

To give an idea of the magnitude of the story at the time, that interview with Nasser led Channel Nine News that night.

The settlement

After things had settled down, Williams defended his actions, saying: "I stood up for myself, for what I believe in. I stood up for all those other players that are sitting at home. I had to have balls to do what I've done. I'm no coward, you know."

He played one trial game for Toulon, but the Bulldogs had obtained a NSW Surpreme Court injunction preventing him from playing again. If he had have played a second time, the potential consequences he faced were losing personal assets in Australia, including his $1.3 million Caringbah home, and even a jail sentence.

Just over three weeks after his departure, Mundine, a personal friend of Williams, paid the Bulldogs a settlement fee of $850,000 to go no further with legal proceedings.

In September 2008, Zoo Weekly magazine named Williams as Australia's most hated person in an annual poll. He even beat Bali bomber Amrozi to the unwanted title.

Williams left Toulon for Super Rugby's Crusaders in June 2010. He made his debut for the All Blacks in November.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.

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