WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 01: Sonny Bill Williams of the All Blacks walks off the pitch after being shown the red card during the match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium on July 1, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Polarizing, talented, and yet at times, a frustrating figure in rugby union. Sonny Bill Williams, the multi-code star whom has risen and fallen in public favour, will look back on 2017 with little fondness.

The player [personally] will feel one way. The rugby public–those in the Northern Hemisphere, and those in his native New Zealand–will all feel differently. He draws acclaim as much as derision, yet his talent is such that in any game he plays in, SBW is the target to beware.

Last Word on Rugby sits squarely in the middle. His skill on the sports field is unquestionable, but if you were to consider the last 12 months then it surely has not been a season that Sonny Bill (SBW) himself, will celebrate. LWOR looks at several moments that stand out over the 2017 rugby season.

The player who is a two-time Rugby World Cup winner, an NRL Premiership winner and at one time the New Zealand Heavyweight boxing champion, has had an up-and-down 12 months. On a personal front, Sonny Bill continues to celebrate parenthood (see below). It is one value which both fan and follower admire.

At the beginning of the year, the player had time on his hands, as he made a full recovery from injury. A recovery which saw him chosen again to represent his country. But it is when wearing All Black, that he is focused on most closely.

2017 Not a Season Sonny Bill Williams will Celebrate

Looking focus points of 2017, the highs and lows will not likely be used in a highlights package for Sonny Bill – although several examples could be used to demonstrate his ability to captivate public opinion.

To start with, Sonny Bill had been a part of an unsuccessful New Zealand attempt at winning the debut gold medal in Rugby Sevens at the Olympic Games. Not only did the Kiwi side not make the medal final though, but SBW succumbed to a nasty Achilles injury that would prevent him from starting the New Year in full health.

Pre-season for his Super Rugby year was delayed for the Blues center. He spent much of his recovery enjoying quality time with his new family. More time in growing his faith, than in properly bonding with the under performing Blues team.

Sonny Bill Makes News in His First Super Rugby Match

By March, his rehabilitation would finally see him fit and in full practice with the Blues squad. In Round 7, Williams was given an opportunity to run out onto the field. Months of training and preparation saw him ready to be part of a team – but on the first chance he was given to represent the Blues, the idiosyncratic figure made a bold personal statement to become an conscientious objector.

Super Rugby Rd 7 - Highlanders v Blues
Sonny Bill Williams of the Blues makes a break during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Blues. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Taping across a sponsors collar-branding saw him utilize a little known contractual formality. All the while, SBW was given preferential treatment; afforded a ‘clean’ jersey that would not feature the BNZ logo on his collar, nor one Investec slogan on the arm, in a specially designed Plunket jersey.

It was not popular, and even if the objection had a religious context, the vagaries of NZ Rugby sponsorship had people suspicious of his motivation. That was the first example of the player being larger than the game.

However, in playing for the Blues during the start of the British and Irish Lions tour, Sonny Bill would have one of the biggest highlights in recent memories. The Auckland-based franchise managed to stage a superb victory over the tourists, with a classic SBW offload seeing Ihaia West score the match winning try.

By July Sonny Bill Williams stood ‘front and center’ for the All Blacks. But, unfortunately not in a positive manner.

SBW See’s Red – Third Ever All Black to be Sent From Field

Sir Colin Meads received one, but after 50 years of International rugby, Sonny Bill Williams became only the third ever All Black to be sent from the field.

This incident (see main picture) is still an example of the player being focused on more than the incident. But it was a clear indiscretion, and not for the only time in 2017, SBW would regret his years in the game of Rugby League.

Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand reacts after tackling with Anthony Watson of the Lions during the International Test match. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The above hit on Anthony Watson was an example of ‘offensive defence’ but it was a fair referee call. The front-on shoulder charge stopped the contest in the 24th minute. Marched from the field, succinctly the All Blacks head coach put it later “I’m very very proud of the 14 men on the field”.

The reason there were 14; and for all intense purposes, a large contributor to the victory –SBW had a hand in the sides first loss on home soil in nine years. Skipper Kieran Read was diplomatic, and the public were [for the majority] forgiving. SBW was only the third ever All Black to be red-carded, the focus on him solely was difficult to escape from.

His four week suspension only deepened the personal embarrassment for the All Black.

SBW Consistent Selection Ahead of Others

After the Blues failed to reach the Super Rugby post-season, SBW had time to prepare for The Rugby Championship. All through the International season, Sonny Bill had internal competition for his position–second five-eighth, a key position and link in the backline chain.

While being selected over the course of the campaign, the match winner was somewhat quiet. To his standard, SBW only did as much as needed–a try against Australia on August 19, his only scoring act but, the player often does so much more than simply ‘crossing the line’.

Handed consistent selection within the All Blacks team, Sonny Bill only sat out the Barbarians non-test match. All the while though, others have challenged his place; Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape, two who could be seen as usurpers to his number 12 jersey. Selectors have been loyal and in 2017, fortified his presence within the side.

Performing well for the most, SBW was a key attribute that All Blacks management relied heavily upon.

Up Until Paris, SBW a Key Figure for All Blacks

In rugby, moments can be recognized as game changers. Even a winning team has them. The All Blacks suffered two losses and one draw, and SBW had shown both good and bad (like the team itself).

So what happened in the 42nd minute of the test match in Paris, seemed to come out of the blue.

In rugby league, when defending the in-goal area, batting the ball over the sideline causes only a kick-restart. But in rugby union, it is an illegal act. When the above action occurred, SBW caused a reaction from officials that put him clearly in the spotlight.

The subsequent admission from the New Zealand management was that SBW ‘did not know the rules’. They spoke of an embarrassment when the player showed poor judgement in his interpretation of the laws of rugby.

Still, the All Blacks did not lose that day. They hardly do, and fortunately this yellow card given to SBW was not a singular ‘moment of madness’ that causes another upset loss in 2017.

Luckily for him, he re-entered the match and the result was an 18-38 win.

Sonny Bill Williams Still Has Challengers to #12 Role

If the result had been otherwise, fans will have reacted quite differently. And counting this latest result from Scotland and Wales, the outside-center position is secured to a point.

Laumape could be the next generation, big tough and able to give that miraculous offload Sonny Bill Williams is famous for. Even a name like Jack Goodhue is seen as a future candidate.

There will always be challengers, but provided the competition is honest and that a man like Sonny Bill Williams is judged on his merits–rather than singular events over any season–than the team will benefit from internal competition.

Sonny Bill Williams of the All Blacks during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Trusts Stadium on June 13, 2017. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Sonny Bill; High Performing Athlete and Rugby Enigma

A team like the All Blacks only perform to the highest level, precisely because men like Sonny Bill are under threat. What can often lead to players being overtaken, are incidents and poor performance. Over 2017, SBW has performed his role, but at times, the enigma is examined more closely than others. And if those actions come at the cost of results, or hold others back, than it can be to the detriment of the side.

If in 2018, Sonny Bill shows his form is strong, he should be selected. Playing in a team, one players past actions cannot be held against them. Over his career, he is a high performing athlete. At 32 years old he might well have the motivation to reach the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Looking ahead, the only person who can answer that is Sonny Bill Williams. A talented player, a commanding figure and both a challenge for defences, as much as a challenge for fans and followers to admire.

Possibly, the next 12 months will be more enjoyable. More highlights on a career that has seen the high performing athlete succeed in many goals. A rugby enigma, but one who will ultimately decide the course of his own future. Whether good, bad, in all black or red.

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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