“So we took all the boys down one night to a gym in Hamilton to watch him box and everyone realised he was emptying himself out in his training,” Rennie says. “The key for us is we wanted to show everyone … we weren’t going soft on him.
“In one of those sessions Liam Messam, who is a pretty handy boxer himself, jumped in for three three-minute rounds. Sonny had already done a couple with a semi-professional boxer. Liam’s a very fit man, but he said he was absolutely wasted.
“Then Sonny kept going for another few rounds. It was important for him to let the boys know he was doing everything he could to win a boxing title then he was going to commit himself fully to the Chiefs.”
Williams went on to beat American Clarence Tillman III for the New Zealand Professional Boxing Association heavyweight title. The fight finished before the end of the first round. He had ensured there were tickets for not only all of his teammates, but also all of the Chiefs’ administration staff who wanted them too.
A few weeks later he told Rennie and the franchise he would not take up his option for another fight during the middle of the Super Rugby season.
“He wanted to help the club win its first Super title so he was going to dedicate all his time to that area,” Rennie says. “That was a lot of money he passed up on.”
The Chiefs won their first Super Rugby title.
And after all these years we are still asking the wrong question about Williams.
It shouldn’t be, ‘can he do it?’ It’s ‘why’ he can – and has always done. Why he has proved doubters and sceptics wrong, for more than a decade, as he’s switched between rugby league, rugby union and boxing and, without a shred of coincidence, won NRL premierships, World Cups, Super Rugby titles and boxing belts.
On a cold night in Canberra, a couple of weeks after his 35th birthday, Williams will start his third – and final – stint in the NRL. He hasn’t played in the competition for six years nor a game of rugby league for almost six months, durng which time he’s also had minor knee surgery.
It’s a challenge most would not even consider, let alone accept.
He has spoken about nerves and self-doubt, but a select group of men who have coached Williams, or seen him in the inner sanctum, know exactly why the Roosters plucked him from a European holiday to help their bid for a third straight title, in a gruelling COVID-19-interrupted season.
When whispers were swirling about Toronto Wolfpack’s viability in this year’s Super League season, Roosters coach Trent Robinson took only a few seconds to pick up the phone and call Williams, signed to a two-year $10 million deal.
“He’s got an aura about him and he’s earned that through achieving in many different places and challenging himself,” Robinson says. “He was an extreme athlete that ended up pushing his limits – not just physically, but mentally – and people respect that.”
It’s easy to forget after Williams sensationally walked out on the Bulldogs mid-way through the 2008 season to play French rugby, other major NRL stars have followed to the 15-man code and returned bruised. Benji Marshall tried and never flourished. Sam Burgess’ World Cup foray ended in tears.
Yet Williams twice left rugby league to join the All Blacks – arguably the world’s most successful international team – and immediately added credibility.
Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who led New Zealand to their first World Cup win on foreign soil, labelled Williams the “best athlete he’s ever coached”. He can understand the questions about Williams now, but also knows the answer.
“At 35 you’ve probably got every right to ask if he’s still got it, but the type of athlete he is and the type of person he is … you’d have to back him that he’s still got it,” Hansen says.
“The biggest thing is I think over time he’s understood who he is as a person, and being a good person is important to him. His family is very important to him, as are his friends. He’s a complicated rooster, but he’s a man who, I think, has grown and he’s a good human being.”
To all of the people who have been around him, that’s exactly what drives Williams these days: being a good person.
Asked to nominate the greatest highlight of his career, Williams modestly deflects. He claims having a platform to instigate positive change for the community is his greatest gift, one he constantly uses to further the cause of his Pasifika people.
Tales of his influence on teammates have been legendary, most notably after his 2013 return to the NRL when, in Robinson’s first year as a head coach, Williams would bring a pen and notebook to Roosters team meetings.
Slowly, more teammates would bring their own pads. Others would start asking if they could join him in the gym before everyone else as he stretched and rolled any tightness out of his chiselled body.
“Slowly through the year that group started to get bigger and bigger, especially for the Islander boys,” his former premiership-winning Roosters teammate Daniel Mortimer says. “It was mostly the young guys wanting to emulate him.
First and foremost he wants to earn the respect of his teammates, that’s front and centre for him
“He had his preparation meticulous and then you would see the consistency in his performance and think, ‘yep, this guy has got it figured out’.
“It was the Sonny Bill show with the media and everything that comes with him, you don’t just get the person.
“But I’ve got to say he’s one of the must humble blokes ever. He doesn’t let that stuff affect him and he’s team first. First and foremost he wants to earn the respect of his teammates, that’s front and centre for him.”
That aim achieved, Williams will be used in a short burst of about 20 minutes from the bench in a grand final rematch against the Raiders.
Robinson is expected to deploy him in the middle of the park, a place where he values forwards which are mobile with light feet and able to use ball skills. Without Victor Radley after a season-ending ACL tear, Robinson has been using his injured star to get Williams up to speed with the Roosters’ playbook.
In truth, Williams hadn’t looked particularly impressive in five games for the Wolfpack. But who is willing to doubt him now?
“All of those trademark things he brought to the highest level in the NRL and the highest level in rugby union, he’s still got,” says the Wolfpack’s former director of rugby Brian Noble, who helped sign Williams.
“The calmness of thought and calmness of intellect separates him from a lot of people. He had the ability to see it as it is. And he understood what you needed to do to get to where you’re going. I think that’s his primary asset.
“At his first session under [Toronto coach] Brian McDermott he went into contact and found one-handed offloads and then they did a bit of bashing each other on the shields. He levelled about three people and I just walked away thinking, ‘he’s not a bad player this guy’.
“That was his first run out after six years. He’s clearly still got the hits, he’s clearly still got the desire, he’s clearly still got the energy and the skills.
“We just need to find out what he can do in the NRL again.”
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Adam Pengilly is a Sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.