12 Aug 2016

Sevens slump at Rio, but SBW is no loser

12:34 am on 12 August 2016

Opinion - The All Black Sevens has hardly set the world alight in Rio de Janeiro, but one player had the time of his life.

Sonny Bill Williams poses for a selfie in Rio.

Sonny Bill Williams poses for a selfie in Rio. Photo: AFP

Sonny Bill Williams was a world star when he arrived and attracted international media attention throughout his time in Rio.

Even though Williams was injured in his team's opening match - the disastrous loss to Japan - he certainly made the most of every moment.

He was a vehement supporter of the women's sevens team, which included his sister Niall. And he was photographed with an array of world sports stars, such as tennis king Rafael Nadal, world 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk and the inimitable Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

CNN didn't really bother too much with the rugby, or non-Americans, but the presence of Williams in the New Zealand team attracted its attention. It covered New Zealand's first match, with footage of Williams being assisted to the sideline with his achilles injury, and then hung around long enough to ask if New Zealand's rugby hard-earned reputation was being diminished by its sevens team.

Niall Williams with her older brother Sonny Bill at the New Zealand Sevens Olympics announcement.

Niall Williams with her older brother Sonny Bill at the New Zealand Sevens Olympics announcement. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Williams is not quite the most famous athlete in the New Zealand Olympic team. That honour goes to golfer Lydia Ko, but he features ahead of Valerie Adams, Mahe Drysdale and other gold medal hopes in terms of international standing.

As is always the case, Williams divides opinions.

I was sitting beside some Australians during the rugby and they were brutal in their assessment of Williams - money-grabbing, over-rated, a show pony, not a loyal bone in his body and so on. Meanwhile sports fans queued up to have a selfie taken with him.

I've never been able to work out what the problem was with Williams.

To me he is a modern sportsman. He has switched happily between rugby and rugby league, and, because it appealed to him, has dabbled in boxing. He fancied having a crack at an Olympic medal so he made himself available for the sevens team.

He turned 31 last week and is losing pace, so there was no guarantee Gordon Tietjens would pick him, but in the end his ball skills and vision were too much to ignore.

Tietjens said he was hugely impressed with Williams' attitude. "He trained his arse off to get in this team, and he is a really proud Olympian," Tietjens said.

Sonny Bill Williams is helped from the field after damaging his Achilles tendon during New Zealand's loss to Japan.

Sonny Bill Williams is helped from the field after damaging his Achilles tendon during New Zealand's loss to Japan. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Much has been made of how Williams has swapped sports, but others, including the much-lauded Brad Thorn, have also done so repeatedly and attracted no opprobrium.

Williams is a Muslim - surely there's no residue ill-feeling because of that. We're better than that in New Zealand aren't we?

Williams' manager, Khoder Nasser (a name that sounds like a used car salesman) has probably done his man few favours in the PR stakes which some unnecessarily bold and over-the-top statements.

But Williams himself is invariably humble. He is the last player off the field after signing autographs, he is immensely proud of his young family, he has fitted into World Cup rugby and league teams, and now into an Olympic team, and never sought to separate himself from team-mates.

And he has compiled a fantastic record at sport - NRL championships, two rugby World Cups, the Olympics and even the New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion.

There's plenty of ill-informed prejudice about Williams, but having seen him close up I'm on his side. I reckon we've been lucky to have him.

*Joseph Romanos is a long-time sports journalist. Rio will be the ninth Olympic Games he has covered. He is there as part of the New Zealand Olympic Committee website team.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.