Sonny Bill calls an end to famous rugby career that included brief stint with Toronto

·5 min read

Sonny Bill Williams, who wore Wolfpack colours briefly but never made it to Toronto, says he is retiring from rugby to focus on boxing.

The 35-year-old former All Black, a star in both rugby union and rugby league, said his farewell on social media.

"A massive thank you to the public and fans for all the support over (the) years," he wrote. "To my many teammates, thanks for the lessons and help along the way. It wasn’t a perfect journey, but the lessons have helped shape me into the man I’m proud to be off the field today."

Williams told Australia's Channel 9 News that he wanted to have another try at boxing.

Williams went 7-0-0 in the ring between 2009 and 2015, earning the vacant New Zealand Professional Boxing Association heavyweight title in 2012 with a TKO win over Clarence Tillman.

He also won a controversial decision over 45-year-old Francois (Frans) Botha who fought -- and lost to -- Evander Holyfield, Wladimir Klitschko, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson.

Williams gave a hint of his plans in a March 3 social media post that showed him posing in a boxing gym, wearing boxing gloves with one foot on the bottom ring rope.

"The new journey begins," he wrote underneath.

The Toronto Wolfpack made news worldwide in November 2019 by signing Williams to a two-year contract. The deal was worth a total of $9 million, with the Kiwi getting an ownership stake in the transatlantic team, according to a source granted anonymity because they were not in a position to publicly divulge the information.

Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle had hoped Williams, a global brand in himself, would help the world taken notice of his transatlantic rugby league team, which started in the third tier of English rugby league in 2017.

But the Wolfpack, who earned promotion to Super League a month before Williams came on board, found themselves going down another path.

Toronto stood down last July, saying it could not afford to return to action when the Super League season resumed in England. It was 0-6-0 in Super League play at the time.

The Wolfpack's bid to return under new ownership in 2021 was voted down in November.

Williams, who never made it to Canada, eventually signed with the Sydney Roosters for the remainder of the 2020 NRL season.

He said his body also had a say in the decision to quit rugby,

“I was humble enough to understand that the old knee couldn’t meet the demands — although the mind wanted to — of week-in, week-out footie, especially in the NRL,” Williams Australia's Channel 9.

Williams' time with Toronto was interrupted by a minor knee procedure.

He joined the club at its training camp in England early January 2020. But he only played a handful games for the Wolfpack and his contribution on the field was modest.

Williams has not played league since 2014 (with the Sydney Roosters). And his last rugby union action was Nov. 1, 2019, in the third-place match at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Williams won championships in both union and league. He competed at three Rugby World Cups —winning two — and was part of the New Zealand rugby sevens team at the 2016 Rio Olympics before rupturing an Achilles tendon.

At his best, the six-foot-three 240-pounder was a powerful runner with an uncanny ability to offload the ball when tackled to keep the attack alive.

"The offload king," the All Blacks said on their official Twitter account. "Thank you for all you've given to New Zealand rugby and fans all around the world … Enjoy retirement."

Williams made headlines, sometimes off the field for the wrong reasons, as a young man. But he found peace and today is a father of four and convert to Islam.

He said dealing with the baggage and attention that comes with fame is helped by his mindset of "I'm not better than anybody else.''

For a superstar, Williams had a nice way abut him.

He earned kudos galore at the 2015 World Cup final after New Zealand beat Australia at Twickenham. A young fan who had made his way on the field was taken down by a security official right in front of him as the All Blacks made their way down the sideline saluting the fans.

Williams helped the young boy up, put his arm around him and walked him back to his parents in the stands, giving him his winner's medal before exchanging hugs and parting ways.

Williams left New Zealand for Australia as a 16-year-old to play rugby league in the NRL with the Canterbury Bulldogs. In 2004 he became the youngest player to win an NRL premiership as the Bulldogs won the Grand Final.

He switched codes in 2008 to play rugby union for France's Toulon. Williams left two years later, saying he wanted to play for the All Blacks.

Williams made his All Blacks debut in November 2010 against England and won 58 caps (including 16 off the bench). His record in the famed black jersey is 52-5-1 with the only losses coming against South Africa (in 2011), Australia (2015 and '17), British and Irish Lions (2017) and England (at the recent World Cup).

Ten of his 65 career points came at the World Cup against Canada with a try in New Zealand's 79-15 win in 2011 and another in the 63-0 victory in Oita on Oct. 2.

But such is the depth of the All Blacks that while Williams played in all five games at the 2019 World Cup, he only started two of them.

His full name is actually Sonny William Williams. His grandfather's name was William, but everyone used to call him Bill. And his grandson became Sonny Bill.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press