Ultimate NRL Athlete Must Stay

06/07/2013

Ultimate NRL Athlete Must Stay

By Ben Everill

Plenty has been written about Sonny Bill Williams this season and predictably now we are in the midst of a full-blown dogfight for where he may play next year. Reports have surfaced about him staying in league and also going back to union and while I was certainly one of the people who said good riddance five years ago when he skipped out on the Bulldogs I have turned somewhat back towards him. I like to compare Sonny Bill to NBA star LeBron James. Both superior athletes who ultimately wanted what was best for them but probably could have gone about getting it in a better manner.

For those of you who were living under a rock, Williams up and left in the middle of the night from the Bulldogs not long after signing a five-year deal for the club. This was the club who recruited him as a kid, nurtured his way into the game, forgave an early transgression or two, moulded a sometimes angry and referee troubled junior into a powerful yet more disciplined player. Now there were plenty of mitigating circumstances but to just ditch your club and teammates by hopping a plane to play rugby in France was never going to win you a lot of sympathy.

James was a future superstar from junior days also, his star on the rise well before hitting the big time, even featuring in a documentary about his high school career in basketball as it happened. From a small town in Ohio, Akron, James’ fate would have it he’d be drafted number one to the closest NBA team, just up the highway at Cleveland. For years James drove the Cavaliers to greater heights as their star player but could not win a championship so when the chance came to create a ‘super team’ in Miami with fellow off-contract stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, he took it. Again, while leaving his hometown team might not have been popular regardless, James alienated most of his former fans and the huge majority of basketball fans across the USA by appearing in a televised special called ‘The Decision’ where, some 30 minutes into a 75 minute program, announced he’d be leaving so he could “win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row or three games in a row, I want to be able to win championships.” The Cavaliers were told of the decision just minutes before the show aired.

The respective moves by Williams and James have made them hated by plenty but you cannot deny their on-field abilities. James has appeared in three straight NBA Finals, winning the last two and Williams has been the catalyst to the Roosters stellar form. Both men have shown some contrition for their younger actions. To be fair to Williams, the comparison doesn’t extend to humility. James still loves to ‘talk it up’ while Williams is one of the most humble, well-spoken, team guys around.

Williams is one rugby league’s best players and while this isn’t ground breaking news, what is it exactly that makes him so good? Why are we all drawn to him and want to keep him despite the past? Is it incredible physique, disciplined lifestyle, talent, skill, work ethic, attitude… the list goes on… But what really separates him from the rest?

Brad Walter of the Sydney Morning Herald, with the help of Sports Data showed us his statistical worth.

“In his 15 matches since returning from a successful five-year stint in rugby, Williams leads the statistics for running forwards (not including hookers) in almost every main category except kicking and errors made,” Walter writes.

“Not only does he have a high workrate but his efforts with the ball are of a higher quality than any other forward averaging more than 15 touches a game.

Williams, who averages 15.7 touches a game, is the NRL’s No.1 back-rower for:

* Tries – six (equal with Brisbane’s Matt Gillett);

* Try assists – five (with the Warriors’ Feleti Mateo);

* Line breaks – nine (with South Sydney’s Sam Burgess); and,

* Line-break assists – nine (the next highest is five).

“He is also fourth overall for offloads (33), behind Brisbane’s Corey Parker (42) and Mateo (41) and Trent Merrin (34).

“However, Williams offloads more regularly when he has the ball than any other leading forward (more than 15 a game) and he also scores tries, sets up tries, makes breaks and creates breaks for teammates with greater frequency.

“Williams scores once every 39.2 touches, sets up a try every 47 touches, busts the defensive line every 26.1 touches, creates a break for a teammate every 26.1 touches and offloads every 7.1 touches.”

(You can read the rest of Walter’s story here. http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/how-sonny-bill-lives-up-to-all-the-hype-20130704-2pey7.html)

These stats certainly highlight plenty of Williams’s traits and worth but can we break it down even further?

The Roosters are playing a very disciplined and structured style of attack. This is unlike the flamboyant attack coming out of their own end we became accustomed to during their 2010 run to the grand final. There is very little of the short side footy that they became so effective with in the past few years. If opposition coaches and teams were upfront they would tell you they know what they are getting from the Roosters. They play the same structured good ball sets each week – with great success.  The additions of James Maloney, Michael Jennings and Williams have completed an already strong roster.

Once the team is close to the line they aim to get to a goalpost, usually the closest post. From this point they set up the common sweep play but Mitchell Pearce is the best in the game at picking out the second of the lead or flat runners, be it Mitch Aubusson, Boyd Cordner or Williams who have all scored multiple tries from this set play this season. So why can’t the opposition stop what they know is coming? And aside from this structured play, where do their points come from?

The answer is Williams. We are talking about a player who sees things other don’t and a player who is unafraid to play what he sees in front of him. Too often in the modern game players are robots, stuck in the pattern and without the instinct to play what is in front of them. I have gone insane watching some clubs halves set up the shift move with a pre-determined outcome in their brains. The lead runner finds a gap but the ball goes out the back, or vice versa. For some like Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk this can be a sucker play to defenders to lure them for a coming play but for many others it is just a pure inability to see past the structure or they are scared to make an error.

Go back to Monday night where the Roosters played Manly and you will see Williams threw a ball to the touch judge when the Roosters were coming out of their own end. It looked pretty embarrassing for such a top quality player to throw the ball to nobody and into touch and it was certainly outside of the Roosters structured yardage game. But what you may not have seen is a missed opportunity, one that Williams’s instincts had picked up. Knowing that Williams likes to throw the long ball to a winger and with Daniel Tupou playing the ball, Jennings should have held his width and had he held the sideline, exactly where Williams passed the ball, the play could have been much different. Jennings couldn’t see what Williams could and if he sees it, he will pass it! That’s how it seems.

Williams separates himself from others in footy because he seems to play without fear. He trusts himself throwing long balls, short balls at the line or offloads in traffic. Other players with great talent are too worried about making errors that they limit their great offensive ability.

Continuing on the Monday night analysis we can note, after a failed attempt to expose the Sea Eagles when coming out of their own end in the first half, Williams refuses to go into his shell like others might. Despite the fact the Roosters structured yardage doesn’t lend itself to attacking the space on the end of the line Williams brings the ‘x-factor’ by playing outside the structure when opportunity arises.

At 8-6 with the game in the balance, the Manly right winger drops back deep looking for a yardage kick on tackle four. Williams sees this and plays outside the structure by putting Jennings into space. Jennings plays to Tupou, he gets it back to Jennings and the score is 12-6 in the blink of an eye with a 70metre try. Right there is the on-field value of a guy like Williams. The Special Talent. No fear, he will pass the ball at the line often, trusts his instincts and backs himself to execute.  Sure, errors occur, but the opposition are constantly under pressure. With his running game, short passing, long passing, offloading and short kicking… How do you stop that? While you can prepare for the structures of a team you can’t prepare for a player who goes outside of it with skill and ultimately success.

Another point on Williams… he is just a genuine all round nice guy. Always humble, always putting team first these days. It’s hard not to like him!

So now we know why he is so valuable I believe the Israel Folau situation has shown us how important trying to keep Williams in rugby league is. Folau has turned heads in the Super Rugby competition this year already but he has now truly gone global with his involvement at Wallaby level. Lions tours are huge in rugby circles across the northern hemisphere and plenty of mates of mine were asking about ‘this Folau guy’ before the first test. Since, they have been gushing…

Paul Kent of the Daily Telegraph in Sydney recently posed the question… how many of us, who call rugby league our game, took a sneaky look at the Wallabies-Lions Test to see how Folau went?

The answer would be plenty. Kent went on in part to talk of the current salary cap review which hopefully is the reason Williams is yet to sign and will help keep some of the stars in the game.

The system obviously needs some updating but I won’t profess to be an expert on how best to run it. I am a big believer in the cap and love how all teams can lay hope to getting into the cycle of some success based around it.

But when it comes to our biggest and best names I have always thought the NRL itself should be paying some wages. An elite player contract, above and beyond what the clubs pay could ensure the league stays pace with the big money offers from elsewhere. Make it 16 players, one from each club and give them a million with a certain proportion put aside for long service. Maybe 600K for the year they are the marquee player, 200K released in three years time and 200K released after six years. For this they will be used by the NRL in marketing campaigns and the like and help drive the sport to new heights. By limiting it to one every club you also potentially help the game disperse these elite guys over all clubs. Maybe Billy Slater wants to be the million dollar man but Cameron Smith has it locked up at Melbourne so he considers a move to Canberra… you get the drift. They would then also get their usual contracts from the clubs, included in the cap.

We need as many instinct-focused players like Williams in this great game of ours as possible.

Do you agree? Join the conversation.