The NRL return of Sonny Bill Williams is a boost for the game in 2013, even if Bulldogs fans aren't happy about it.
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SOAPBOX: He may not be popular, particularly with Bulldogs fans, but the return of Sonny Bill Williams is still a coup for the NRL...
Sonny Bill Williams' return to the NRL has been met by predictable scepticism from many rugby league fans, and with good reason.
The hulking Kiwi – who has now played at the highest level in both league and rugby union, as well as starting a promising boxing career – walked out on the Canterbury Bulldogs (and a five-year contract) back in 2008 to play rugby union in France.
It's hard to imagine a bigger slap in the face for the code of rugby league, and the fact that he is (at the time of writing) yet to apologise to Bulldogs fans or the club itself doesn't sit well either.
But despite all that, his return to league is a coup for the game. With another code-hopper, Israel Folau, also making the switch back to the NRL following the game's bumper new broadcast deal, 2013 looms as the year the game finally overcomes fears of a "player drain" to rival codes.
Back to Sonny Bill. On the one hand, he has officially "done his time", having paid the Bulldogs $750,000 to get out of his contract back in 2008 and agreed to not line up for any other NRL club until the end of 2012. Some cheeky NRL fans have even argued that spending four years in rugby union should be punishment enough.
Yes, the man who will forever be referred to as "$BW" has only signed a one-year deal, and there's every chance he'll continue to balance his rugby league career with boxing – and even make a return to rugby union when it suits him.
But does that really hurt the NRL in the long run? And if it does, does it outweigh the boost the game will get in the short term?
Make no mistake, the already-popular round one clash between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Sonny Bill's Roosters just got bigger. Everyone who could consider themselves an NRL fan will be watching that game. Not to mention the mouth-watering prospect of Williams taking on his old club the Bulldogs.
In fact, Williams' presence will help the attendance figures at all Roosters games next season. He may be one of the game's most divisive figures, but that will only make fans more likely to get to games to see him in action. What fan wouldn't want to see their team get a shot at belting (and beating) Sonny Bill Williams?
Of course, his talent and experience will also be appreciated by a Roosters side that finished 13th last season and is looking to become a finals contender again.
So if the move works for the Roosters and the NRL's TV ratings and crowd figures, where is the real drawback?
Bulldogs great Hazem El Masri has expressed the feelings of that club's fans by saying that he won't be welcoming Williams back to the game. And that's fair enough. Eels fans would have had similar feelings when Jamie Lyon walked out on their club in 2004, only to sign on with Manly two years later. But that doesn't mean Lyon's return to the NRL was bad for the game itself, and the same goes for Williams.
It's not just Bulldogs fans of course. Our Wednesday poll on BigPond Sport asks "Are you pleased to see Sonny Bill Williams back in the NRL?" and most respondents – about 65 per cent at the time of writing – have voted "no".
Yet that doesn't mean his recruitment is bad for the game. On the contrary, the presence of sporting "villains" like Williams is usually great for boosting interest and crowd numbers. You may not like that he's back, but that doesn't mean you won't be watching him.
Even if things go disastrously wrong next season – the Roosters struggle, Sonny Bill appears to lose interest, crowds dwindle and Williams departs to return to the All Blacks for 2014 – not a lot of damage will really be done. Let's face it, it's happened before. And despite that, the game (and the Bulldogs) have never been in better shape.
Certainly the signing seems a risk worth taking when the potential pay-off for the Roosters and the NRL is so big.
The game has lost star players before, and continued to thrive. When one of those big names come back – whether they succeed or fail on the field – the NRL can only benefit, in the short term at least.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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