The Return of Sonny Bill

7th February 2020

The upward trajectory of the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league club – which has hitherto involved three seasons in the lower leagues – has now taken it into the Betfred Super League, the premier division of the game in Britain. I sense that views on this within the sport are divided: some welcome the broadening of rugby league’s horizons and the other opportunities that might be presented in North America; others would prefer to consolidate within the traditional heartlands of the north of England and – I suspect, at the extreme – would be quite content for Wigan to play St Helens or Warrington every other week. I am firmly in the former camp.

The Toronto climate being what it is, the club is obliged to play the first few matches of the new season away from their base at the Lamport Stadium. Their first match in Toronto will not be until the visit of Hull FC in the middle of April. The opening fixture – last Sunday – was against the Castleford Tigers at Headingley as part of a double-header that also saw the Leeds Rhinos take on Hull (afterwards, not at the same time!).

As if the entry of a Canada-based team into a British sporting competition were not newsworthy enough, the Toronto Wolfpack club has raised the promotional stakes several further notches through the high-profile signing of the former All Blacks rugby union player, Sonny Bill Williams.

SBW started – in rugby league – in 2004 at the age of 18 with the Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia’s National Rugby League. Four years later, he moved on France to play rugby union for Toulon. Since 2010, he has played for various union sides, mainly in New Zealand though also in Japan, interspersed with two seasons back in the NRL with the Sydney Roosters. His international appearances for New Zealand have been at both league (World Cup runner-up) and union (twice a World Cup winner). In addition, he has fought in (and won) 7 bouts of professional boxing (including for the New Zealand heavyweight title).

At the age of 34, it is reasonable to assume that SBW is approaching the end of his distinguished career: 16 years in professional rugby will have taken its toll and he has been far from injury-free during that time. Nonetheless, his acquisition by Toronto is a major coup – albeit an expensive one – which is generally recognised to have given a major shot in the arm not only to the Super League entrants, but to the sport as a whole. It is certainly one of the reasons I turned up at Headingley on Sunday.

Toronto took the field to polite applause from the near-capacity crowd. In their match-day squad, they fielded 5 players who had featured in the corresponding group for the League 1 encounter against Newcastle Thunder that I had seen at the Lamport Stadium in August 2017 and it was one of these – the winger, Liam Kay – who registered their first Super League points with an early try following a neat kick through by Hakim Miloudi. Miloudi – along with his fellow centre three-quarter Ricky Leutele – had a strong game and was rewarded with a long-range interception try late in the match. Another of the survivors from the Newcastle game – the Australian Blake Wallace – played soundly at full-back.

However, Toronto were generally second-best to Castleford, whose strong-running forwards provided the creative platform for the half-backs Jake Trueman and Danny Richardson to exploit. Castleford were also sharper around the play-the-ball, where the experienced Paul McShane ensured a strong momentum to the play. Toronto relied heavily on the distributional skills of the former St Helens veteran Jon Wilkin, but he was closely targeted by the Castleford defenders and several of his passes were rushed and misdirected. It was one of these, during another promising Toronto attack following Kay’s try, that was picked off by the Castleford winger, Greg Eden, for an 80 metre run to the try-line.

Sonny Bill Williams made his keenly anticipated entrance from the replacements bench after 25 minutes. His first contribution to the match was to drop a pass. Thereafter, he had a generally quiet game, attempting without success to create something from his characteristic overloads in the tackle. He moved into midfield to play a more central role after Wilkin had been substituted but, by then, Castleford were coasting on their 22-4 half-time lead and the result of the match was not in doubt. The final score of 28-10 was a fair reflection of the play. One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level.

In the second game, the Leeds Rhinos were overwhelmed by Hull FC by 30 points to 4. The visitors have invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and, on the evidence of this first game, it looks to have been money well spent. Leeds found it difficult to contain the powerful surges of Manu Ma’u and Andre Savelio, in particular; the home side’s creative efforts, by contrast, tended to be far too lateral. Hull also have some firepower in their three-quarters, as shown by the winger Ratu Naulago who, after collecting a high kick on his own 22 line, displayed a potent combination of dexterity, power and speed in making the break for the opening score by Carlos Tuimavave. I suspect that, in due course, that try will come to be seen as one of the best of the season on this ground.

In the second half, Ash Handley’s neatly taken try on Leeds’s left-wing was little more than consolation, as his side was trailing by 24 points at the time. The latter stages were played in a heavy downpour, which seemed to serve as an appropriate metaphor for Leeds’s disappointing start to the league season. By contrast, the Hull players – prompted by Marc Sneyd’s accurate kicking game – revelled in the conditions and offered much promise for their new Super League campaign.

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