Trouble in Tiger Town – Part 2 (Sacking Tim Sheens)

The Wests Tigers certainly had a poor year in 2012. However, as I have noted elsewhere, there were some contributing factors to their failure to finish in the top 8, including numerous long-term injuries and some dodgy refereeing decisions (eg the Round 24 game versus the Bulldogs). One further win at some point in the season, and perhaps here we highlight the ‘no-try’ that was given to the Bulldogs, and the Tigers would have been playing finals footy in 2012.

Instead they did not. However, I am intrigued that the injuries and, let’s be brutally frank, some of the too regular inept performances by many of the 2012 squad, somehow are overlooked, with the blame squarely being placed on coach Tim Sheens. Really? Sheens is a master tactician who certainly revolutionised the Tigers playing style (and the way rugby league has been played in recent years) and while perhaps some tweaks were needed to get the balance between the flair and the grind, it was not his weekly performances that were the worst part of Wests 2012 season. Of greater concern was the mentality, skills and on-field displays of many of the Tigers players, who could be brilliant and then at other times produce appalling displays not good enough for first graders.  If anything, the club review should have taken account into that the squad was decimated regularly with injury, while conversely highlighting that the Wests Tigers depth and abilities were inadequate when key players were absent for sustained periods. This again comes back to notions of recruitment and retention (see part one), but also problematises lynching the coach if he can’t consistently assemble a fit and healthy squad to take the field.

And what about Tim Sheens?  Well he certainly has a wealth of experience and accomplishments, inclusive of coaching over 600 games and winning three premierships. Some have taken potshots at his ‘lack’ of success which is suspect considering how formidable the Canberra Raiders ‘Green Machine’ was in the late 1980s and much of the 1990s. Clearly Sheens hit a snag and had a disastrous five-year stint with the North Queensland Cowboys after this success.

If we turn to his time at the Wests Tigers, the calls for his 10-year reign to end are ridiculous. Sheens inherited a team of also-rans, with the merging of two under performing foundation clubs. I can tell you first hand the pain of watching a Balmain Tigers squad that often were the whipping boys throughout the 1990s; the pain of the two grand final losses (1988/1989), a finals appearance in 1990, before a period of agony which was bereft of finals footy. It’s not like the Western Suburbs Magpies delivered much better; in fact, they secured the dreaded wooden spoon for 1998 and 1999.  So two historically significant but clearly struggling clubs (on field and financially). After two years of ‘teething issues’ as the Wests Tigers, Sheens took over at the helm, hardly his ‘golden ticket’ destined for glory it would seem.

But Sheens did work his magic, developing a brand of entertaining football that culminated in the 2005 Grand Final victory, not to mention two other finals forays in 2010 and 2011.  Admittedly, the aftermath of 2005 took its toll for a few years, and the playing squad never quite had the right mix (eg the loss of say Scott Prince was felt for years), as were the numerous shoulder complications for Benji Marshall. But the Wests Tigers, with a seemingly better balanced squad, made repeat finals 2010 and 2011. While some of the press and fans have been dismissive of Sheens for 2012, it should be mentioned that for a freak Krisnan Inu late in the semi-final, the Tigers would have been in the 2011 Grand Final instead of the Warriors, while one win (and perhaps a correct obstruction call in Round 24) would have seen them play in the finals series again in 2012.

By way of concluding, Tim Sheens sacking was ridiculous in a season punctuated with poor playing performances (not coaching strategies), by an appalling run of long term injuries and in a season where one more win was the only difference between playing finals footy. Sheens transformed the Wests Tigers style of play during the later 2000s (extrapolate this to all styles of rugby league) and had a clear blueprint for how the Tigers could balance the flair with the grind (which unfortunately too many of his players failed to execute in 2012). Moreover, Sheens had made the Wests Tigers into a regular finals football team (all the more remarkable without a first choice quality half back), and gave the club its an unexpected first ever Premiership in 2005. This was historically significant for, as separate entities, Balmain last won in 1969, and Western Suburbs in 1952!

In the modern era, where Wayne Bennett, Craig Bellamy and an emerging force in Des Hasler, dominate league and the premierships, Sheens needs to be recognised as one of the best coaches going around, and one of the only ‘other’ coaches to have tasted success.  He has also been very good at developing new talent and elevating others’ games to the next level (think of the likes of Robbie Farah, Benji Marshall, Keith Galloway and Chris Lawrence, as well as younger and more recent players like Aaron Woods and Marika Koroibete).

Maybe things were going a bit stale at the Wests Tigers in 2012.  Nevertheless, the management should have honoured the remaining two years of his contract, actually paid ‘contracted’ players like Beau Ryan, and let Sheens guide the Tigers to more finals football or part ways on more amicable terms at the end of his contract.  Sheens should be remembered as a ‘supercoach’ who revolutionised, revitalised and ultimately made triumphant, an otherwise stagnant football club.

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Trouble in Tiger Town – Part 1 (Recruitment and Retention)

It has been hard making sense of the recent developments at the Wests Tigers.

The loss of two key club men, advising others to look around, retaining or recruiting aging players and the sacking of coach Tim Sheens has been hard to understand.

Apparently all aspects of the club were undergoing a post season ‘review process’ yet, for all intents and purposes, it seemed that Tim Sheens was the prime target and man under pressure during the review. While that was still occurring, it transpired that player movements were also afoot. This, I would suggest, has been ridiculous and some of these decisions baffling, reflecting the inaptitude of the club more than the coach.

We’ll return to the sacking of Tim Sheens in Part Two.

For Part One, however, the focus is on the poor recruitment and loss of players by the Tigers. Coach Sheens was part this process, apparently fed up with some underperforming players and knowing that the club needed a fresh direction recruitment-wise. It seems Sheens was party to some of the recent player developments. The most notable were two key club men leaving for the Cronulla Sharks despite having existing contracts.

The first, Chris Heighington, the only player to have played 200 games for the Wests Tigers, was told he would not be re-signed and was allowed to shop around for a new club. This is a tricky situation and has met with a mixed reception from the fans. Heighington, fed up at being overlooked for representative honours in Australia, has been an international footballer for Great Britain for two years and has been popular with the players and supporters for his high work rate and off field comradeship.  Heighington still had a year to run on his contract but it appears Sheens decided a new direction was needed (a sentiment that has been expressed by some fans suggesting he works hard but lacks in on-field impact). Certainly injuries also curtailed his 2012 performances, yet he remains a durable and enduring footballer who had remained loyal to the club.

Letting Beau Ryan go was a calamitous error. Ryan has been arguably the best Tigers back in 2012, is improving on the field and has huge marketability off the field with his television work on The Footy Show. For this to occur, the Wests Tigers Recruitment team need to fall on their swords. Sheens is blameless in the case of Ryan; he wanted Ryan (and Ryan wanted to be coached by him) while a new three-year deal was announced earlier in 2012. Nevertheless, players like to get paid and failing to actually formalise the deal or provide Ryan with cash was a ridiculous blunder. With this, Ryan took his emerging talent and marketable persona to the Cronulla Sharks, linking with Heighington and other notable Tigers’ cast-offs – Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita and John Morris.  The aptly dubbed ‘Tiger Sharks’ are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee.

So who has been retained? Two aging wingers have been granted contract extensions. Former New Zealand representative winger Matt Utai probably did enough to secure another season, with some solid performances in 2012, albeit with some shockers also in the mix. Lote Tuqiri, a former Australian Rugby and League representative, was not worth retaining. He may be able to mentor fellow Fijian Marika Koroibete, but Koroibete should be replacing on him on field and Ryan was the logical other winger (now Utai) for the 2013 season. Tuqiri is not worth a two-year contract nor expensive salary to be frank. He was exceptional in 2010, breathing attacking life into the Tigers flank and seemed to offer the final factor needed for the Tigers attack. Unfortunately, much of 2011 was spent in the sick bay, and while Tuqiri suddenly seemed to dig in a bit more, it was clear that he was spurred on by needing to get a new contract. Admittedly the Tigers looked a better team (and got deep into the Finals) with Tuqiri in 2010 and 2011.  However, the lengthy 2012 injury culled his prospects while the unearthing of Koroibete should have extinguished his playing future with the Wests Tigers.

And the future? Another aging player, Braith Anasta will arrive in 2013. He is a solid player, composed leader and does offer some ball playing ability, so may be an asset to the team (despite being written off by many).  Eddie Pettybourne should also aid the Tigers forward pack. However, replacement wise, the two wingers retained are dubious, as was retaining Tim Moltzen for three years (he may need to become a half back to get into the starting side in 2013).

There are also murmurs of discontent within the playing group, partially leading to Sheens dismissal apparently, but the senior players are culpable for the majority of them playing sub standard in 2012. Some, such as captain Robbie Farah, are being targeted by other clubs for 2014, so retaining the core and key players will be vital for the Tigers. Again, though,  many of these players need to address their own short-comings rather than attribute blame to others.

Not only is a decent new coach needed, but a major player signing must be unveiled to stem the feeling that the Wests Tigers will be also-rans in 2013. The mooted signing of Brent Kite, a strong but fading front rower, isn’t quite the coup being sought, nor awe-inspiring for the fans. Rumours of Michael Jennings signing could do the trick; a big game player but one who equally frustrates and lacks in consistency. If this signing comes to fruition this would explain why the young centre Blake Ayshford is also being advised to shop around. Jennings would at least offer some attacking hope for the Tigers, but realistically they need a supercoach to get the best out of him and the disillusioned Wests Tigers squad in 2013; they had that in Tim Sheens but sacked him……

Wests Tigers Season Review 2012

Where did it all go wrong, Tim?

The alleged favourites for the 2012 season, this was a team whose on field display failed to live up to such expectations. Clearly, even considering the Wests Tigers as title favourites was a foolish starting point but, on paper at least, they did seem to have the depth and calibre to mount an assault on the title. In fairness, they should have too; a team that was agonizingly close to the Grand Final in 2011, all but sealing that spot until the late heroics of the Warriors bundled the Tigers out. 2012 was going to be their season it would seem.

Alas, no. The Tigers do have some excuses and certainly have some young talent that will help them in future campaigns, but their meek on-field performances for the majority of the season were frankly not good enough. Too often, the Tigers looked uncertain, made embarrassing mistakes (the must win game versus the Roosters in Round 25 was one of the worst performances of recent history that would have seen a schoolyard C team hang their heads in shame), and were rightly labelled ‘soft’ early in the season for brittle defence. Credit is due to the Tigers for overcoming the poor early season (1 win, 5 defeats) to play a conservative ‘grinding’ style to win games, muscle up in defence and to selectively inject themselves at the right moments in attack. These seven weeks of winning football indicated promise and the Tigers looked a serious threat if they maintained this style and executed the basics right. Alas no. Hit and miss games are to be expected, as are losses and injuries, but too many sideways and flashy periods of attack in which they tried to find the Tigers circa 2005  ‘attack from anywhere’ edict would repeatedly come unstuck. And those defensive lapses would haunt the Tigers – the worrying sight of the lowly Parramatta running through yawing gaps in the middle of the field in Round 21 when the Tigers had specifically proclaimed that a return to the grinding style would be employed to yield the needed winning results and save their season; on this occasion it was the Tigers ‘touch footy’ ability, and the unearthing of Marika Koroibete in particular, that furnished the win. Overall, this would happen too often throughout the season; an inability to stick to the ‘grind’, to the basics of completing sets, conservative attack balanced with selective flashy ‘touch style’ injections and remaining resolute in defence. Disappointingly for fans, the coach and the players, the Tigers showed that they could do this on occasions and offered some hope of at least getting to the finals but consistency (and injuries) blighted their season and potential.

The excuses: In fairness, the Tigers did have an appalling run of injuries to key players, at key times or for sustained periods that made the much needed and vaunted consistency highly problematic. I recall coach Tim Sheens in 2005 stating that his team’s success was partly due to few injuries and being able to continually field the same team – clearly this unraveled in 2012. Long term injuries to James Tedesco (season), Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington and Lote Tuqiri, as well as stints on the sideline for Chris Lawrence, Keith Galloway, Curtis Sironen and Robbie Farah (Origin duties and injury) amongst others, curtailed the continuity on the field that was required.

The other major ‘excuse’ was some poor refereeing that has effected Rugby League in general throughout 2012, with the diabolical nature of the obstruction call bordering on the ridiculous. Again, most teams have been the victim of some bizarre interpretation (or lack thereof). While maybe some other circumstances may have conspired against the result, it would seem that the Tigers should have won against the Bulldogs in Round 24 but for a poor interpretation of the rules that even some of the wisest minds/best players in league (Phil Gould, Ray Warren, Wally Lewis, Andrew Johns) thought was a clear obstruction and gaffe by the video referee (and subsequently was deemed to be by Referee’s boss Bill Harrigan). This obstruction was ruled a try, forced the Tigers to conjure up a rapid response and took the game to extra time.

This game underlined the frustration associated with the Tigers in 2012 – rising to the occasion to push the Minor Premiers in extra time (and arguably be denied the win by an appalling refereeing decision) but to then capitulate the very next week when their season is on the line against the lowly Sydney Roosters.

Where to from here? It is not Tim Sheen’s fault in my view and he is exactly the person required to keep this often inconsistent team on the same page – harnessing the individual brilliance but reining in and tempering the over flashy displays with a return to the grind. He seems to know how to blood the young talent well too and created a template for the attacking ‘Tigers’ football that worked well in the past. Although not always apparent this season, he generally manages Benji well and certainly has taken some players’ games to the next level – most notably Robbie Farah and Aaron Woods.

There are plenty of positives in personale too. Some players have certainly exceeded this year, Farah, Woods, Beau Ryan, Liam Fulton, and off the bench, Ben Murdoch-Masila. New rookies were discovered that can help the club build in the future and hopefully will be major stars in their own right: Marika Koroibete, Curtis Sironen and James Tedesco. Masada Iosefa was also a handy addition to the team during the season. Others were generally strong but hampered by time on the sidelines, the likes of Chris Lawrence, Keith Galloway, Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington. Too many, unfortunately, were far too inconsistent – the likes of Benji Marshall being brilliant on occasions but also resorting to trying too hard to be a one-man team. Unfortunately, most of the team were inconsistent and will raise headaches for Sheens – where and if to play Tim Moltzen and Blake Ayshford, or whether to resign Matt Utai and Lote Tuqiri.

Disagreeing with most, I actually thought Adam Blair was solid enough in his first season, he took time to adjust to the Tigers style and is still not fully there, failing to always provide the solid hit-ups, but he did provide some assistance on attack and certainly was busy on defence (as always he needs to stay disciplined and reduce his penalty count). It is also really disappointing that Gareth Ellis departs as one of the best Tigers forwards but injuries negated his final season in relation to his stellar performances in his too-short Tigers career. I also thought that the Tigers missed a trick by not signing Willie Mason (as I suggested at the time) as he has not been the negative walking headline and sponsors’ headache in 2012, while signing him for peanuts saw him excel in Newcastle. Ray Cashmere offered size but generally was patchy and is not the calibre of a Mason.

The future? – Braith Anasta comes to the club and offers a ball playing forward (or back?) with plenty of leadership and experience. A very gifted footballer and offering more attacking options he is a worthy signature but, nevertheless, not a Gareth Ellis in defence. Eddy Pettybourne will hopefully also add some starch to the team. Whether some players get a contract extension or not remains to be seen (Tuqiri, Utai) but certainly more depth is required on the roster as Tom Humble and Joel Reddy generally disappointed (Reddy’s defence was exposed far too often). Finally, who plays where in certain positions will be an interesting proposition for 2013 (how or if to accommodate Moltzen v Tedesco at fullback, Anasta v Sironen at standoff, and who the right centre and winger will be).

Overall, from being touted premiership favourites, 2012 will be remembered as a failure for the Wests Tigers being always on the fringe of the top 8 but failing to advance to the finals.

A tale of two Halves

There are some interesting halves combinations on display over the Rugby League representative weekend that are worth briefly casting an eye over for their potential impact on the results and the ‘bigger’ picture significance of these pairings…

The Anzac Test:

Usually a game for the Kiwis to demonstrate the fighting strength of a flightless little bird, I suspect New Zealand league fans are in for more disappointment as ‘the bros’ come together for a far too brief hui and get massacred by the juggernaut that is the Australian Rugby League team. The Kiwis struggle in these one-off games and are far more suited to the longer in-camp build up of tournaments where the brotherhood and mana flow, not the catch up over a latte let’s play a game of footy scenario of this type of fixture. While much of the attention has been focused on Tamou and the welcoming committee that will greet the Maori boy turning his back on NZ to play for Australia (yes, he can fondly reflect on Karmichael Hunt’s warm welcome that saw him stretched off the park in the opening minutes), the New Zealand halves combination is shaping up as an exciting prospect. The Kiwis have had a handful of useful halves in the day, Gary Freeman, Clayton Friend and more recently Stacey Jones, but with Benji Marshall getting joined by a Benji-like protegé in Shaun Johnson, they have arguably the best halves combination they have ever fielded (of course also acknowledging that Kieran Foran would be there barring injury and is certainly no slouch….he’ll probably be a Kiwi centre in the future). Whether they are or will be the best ever is tricky to ascertain but in terms of flair, skill, speed, passing and unpredictability, they must be considered a dynamic combination capable of tearing the Kangaroos to ribbons with off-loads, broken play, set plays and simply freakish plays (as Marshall has conjured up numerous times before for both his club and country). However, before anyone nips off to the bookies to wager their weeks’ earnings, let me make it clear that New Zealand will need the forwards to muscle up, contest, tackle, go forward and generally compete well against the Kangaroos for the halves to shine. That is, if the big boys can avoid getting drawn into a literal slug fest where they try to ‘smash’ their opposition and play the man rather the ball, then such a platform should allow the kiwi halves to exploit the rare gaps, tired legs or weaknesses should they present themselves. But exciting as it may be to see what these two can conjure and unleash, it is going to be a big ask for them alone to provide the difference.  So exciting, entertaining and potentially razzle dazzle from these hot stepping halves, but probably a bridge too far for the forwards to curb and control their aggression up front…let alone to actually defeat the Goliath’s of Rugby League.

Really not much needs to be said about the Australian pairing. While, no doubt, the retirement of Darren Lockyer is a massive void to full in terms of experience and big match temperament, in step the groomed Maroons/Kangaroos halves pairings who have the combination of flair and experience in Johnathan Thurston, and the consistency and composure in Cooper Cronk. Simply swapping the colour of their jerseys come representative time, and on the back of a similar set of  robust, skilful and mobile forward packs (the majority of which also switch green and gold for maroon jerseys when needed), these two should be able to contain most of what the Kiwis can throw at them with a little help from their big friends. However, Benji has managed to get one over Thurston on occasions, and JT is prone to losing his rag with referees, so getting him down on confidence or incensed over a bad call or play that goes wrong most likely will be a deliberate ploy for the Kiwis, either by hammering him in every tackle or by baiting the wild man within. Still, a classy and polished halves pairing that should reign supreme at international and state level.

City v Country

The competition for the NSW state of origin team halves spots will also be an intriguing second game to watch this weekend. By all accounts Mitchell Pearce has the number 7 sewn up, but the halves pairings of Pearce and Jarryd Hayne vs Jarrod Mullen and Todd Carney will be interesting.  Hayne is or should be a certainly for a sky blue jumper somewhere in the backline, but Carney’s resurgence has been spectacular. For a man prone to life with the bottle, and numerous benders, misdemeanours and failed attempts to stay clean despite ‘final warnings’ and resultant terminated contracts, his efforts in 2012 have been phenomenal and a major factor in the Sharks unexpected on field successes. Carney needs to restrict his celebrations to the field but at this stage is firming as Pearce’s partner for Origin, on the back of  this form and his previous combination with Pierce at the Roosters. Mullen is the dark horse and certainly not a poor player, but arguably would need the game of his life to re claim an Origin jumper. Other notable omissions – Peter Wallace (worth considering?) and Jamie Soward (you are the weakest link, good bye). If this is really a ‘trial’ for selection, then the battle between Carney and Hayne, two players who are fundamental to sparking their clubs into life and making things happen when they apply themselves, should be a salivating showdown.   Unfortunately, to the victor the spoils….or more realistically a poisoned chalice, as Thurston and Cronk await and potentially so too another Blues’ Origin debacle.

Down and Out

Two other players entrusted with the responsibility of sparking their clubs into life are currently needing resuscitation. Poor Terry Campese is out for another season due to injury and probably extinguishes the Canberra flame unless a very blunt attack can find some teeth …Josh Dugan will be over worked in this capacity.

While life is not so good for Chris Sandow. Leaving Souths with a swagger, some seemingly impressive attacking skills and enticed with a fat pay cheque, Sandow’s hardly been value for money and demoted to reserve grade on the back of his poor 2012 form with Parramatta. Sandow seems to have skipped training for pies, forgotten that defence is required on the field and is ‘General Disarray’ on attack. No wonder Coach Kearney thought enough was enough….at least Sandow still has the chance to redeem his and Parramatta’s fortunes, unlike the hapless Campese.

Fire up Felipe Massa… Or you’ll be fired!

As I have discussed elsewhere, Formula One driver Felipe Massa is under considerable pressure to keep his seat with Ferrari. The latest race at the Malaysian Grand Prix only served to further intensify the rumours and speculation regarding his position within the team. More to the point and of particular concern for Massa, is that a clear candidate emerged as a suitable replacement… the outstanding and most unexpected performance from Sauber driver Sergio Perez.

Essentially, Massa has known for some time that he needs to improve. With two ordinary seasons in 2010 and 2011, and with his contract up for renewal, it was time for Massa to start demonstrating to Ferrari and the F1 community that he was still the capable driver that so nearly won the 2008 Drivers’ title. However, Massa’s start to the 2012 season has been anything but ideal. A very poor showing in the Australian Grand Prix saw numerous replacements linked to his seat and outcries for his immediate axing from Ferrari. Indeed he was at times 2-3 seconds off Alonso’s pace in the same car (in a sport where the gap is usually tenths of a second) and generally looked sluggish all weekend.

On to Malaysia where a very concerned Ferrari team had provided him with a new chassis to assist in his performances. The result? Another bad showing wherein Massa did improve slightly but was obliterated by the sublime skill and talent of his two-time world champion team-mate Alonso, who won the race. In relation to Massa the gulf was ridiculous, nearly lapping him and being at times 3-5 seconds quicker per lap.

To compound Massa’s woes, Sergio Perez, a driver who has been earmarked as having a possible Ferrari future (he is a Ferrari Academy Driver), drove a stunning and unexpected race. Perez managed to drag the mid-field Sauber car to a near shock victory, pressurised Alonso, set successive fastest laps, and handled both the torrential conditions and the massive speculation about his possible Ferrari drive with consummate ease. This was a career defining second place from Perez, who is only two races into his second season. Quite simply, two drivers seemingly vying for the same Ferrari race seat produced two distinctive displays – the mature, controlled execution not expected of a young driver versus the hallmarks of a no longer front-running driver fading and failing to find what it takes.

In fairness to Felipe, the Ferrari is not a stellar car and in fact is realistically a mid-field runner at best, so he can’t be expected to achieve podiums or wins. He also is not recognised as a strong wet weather driver, so the rain was never going to assist him. Moreover, he is in the inexorable position of having arguably the most complete driver on the grid as his team-mate, a talented racer who could seemingly finish in the points on a wheelie bin. Massa can only ever look second-rate beside Alonso, but for a man who is under pressure and has known of the expectations for the past few seasons, he is not stepping up. Conversely, young drivers like Perez are, and they are making a case for Massa to be ousted sooner rather than later if Ferrari wish to claim consistent points this year.

It is not new in F1 to have a driver under severe pressure to keep his seat early in the season  – we can look back to Jacques Villeneuve in 2005 with Sauber, Rubens Barrichello in 2006 with Honda, or even Michael Schumacher in 2011 with Mercedes who all underwent intense speculation. However, each of these drivers had the excuse of being in new teams (and a return to the grid for Villeneuve and Schumacher), while Massa has been ensconced in the Ferrari team since 2006…he can have no such luxuries and has always known that the coveted Ferrari race seat can also be a poisoned chalice if one fails to deliver.

With a three-week gap between races, Massa has flown to Ferrari HQ to further exam what is going wrong. Time will tell  how much longer Ferrari are prepared to let Massa attempt to rediscover his form and speed, but with an impressive and immensely talented youngster already nestled under the Ferrari parental wing, Massa surely is on borrowed time. Certainly a more polished performance could turn Massa’s season around, but the Ferrari mantra may instead be ‘three strikes and you’re out’…..that’s if Perez isn’t already having the seat fitting for the Ferrari cockpit in time for the third Grand Prix in China.

Show me the money Sonny!

Oh dear, Sonny Bill Williams is not exactly demonstrating humility or dissuading rugby/league/sport followers from thinking that he is not merely about the money if this report is to be believed. In a nutshell, he wants all the terms to be his way if he were to rejoin the NRL inclusive of being guaranteed the highest current player’s salary, only signing a one year deal and to be permitted to continue his boxing career. The combination of his previous antics and his associated press coverage has meant that SBW has had a long history of getting under the skin of followers for many of the wrong reasons.

His previous rugby league career is a case in point. While quickly earning a reputation as one of the best players, ‘big hitters’ and off-loaders in rugby league, he famously walked out on his long term contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs for reasons that ranged from a change of heart, disloyalty (taking offense at Willie Mason leaving for the Sydney Roosters), loss of passion, new challenges and the more obvious pull of bigger money being offered elsewhere. In fact, SBW snuck out of his contract in disgrace, flying to Europe under darkness and refusing to return or honour his contract. Not surprisingly this irked Bulldogs players, officials, sponsors and fans alike, and he was banned from returning to play for any rival NRL club before his existing contract had expired. That time has now come.

In the interim, SBW earnt big money between 2008-2010 playing rugby with Toulon in the French competition but returned to New Zealand under a polarising thread of fanfare and disdain to fulfill what he claimed to be a childhood dream of being an All Black. Williams played for the Canterbury province in 2010, made the New Zealand team at the end of the season, while going on to be a key part of the All Blacks squad that won the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Wrongly, in my opinion, many opponents claimed SBW returned to New Zealand for the money, a ridiculous accusation given the purported six million dollar contract turned down for roughly $550,000 from the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRFU).

However, what the New Zealand public has had to endure is SBW the walking commodity, being used to endorse numerous items, companies and All Black associated brands – most prominently Rebel Sport, Sky Sport Television, Adidas and Powerade amongst others. For many, Williams endorsements outweigh his on field exploits and his very recent addition to the national team, especially in relation to more prominent and long established players. He has also garnered quite a celebrity status by New Zealand standards, with an especial interest in and focus on sexualised representations of his taunt, athletic physique.

Quite rightly it would appear, many suspected that Williams flirtation with New Zealand rugby would be a short one, gaining global exposure via the World Cup, fulfilling his All Blacks aspirations and then looking to move on. The question was always what next, post-Rugby World Cup? Williams stalled negotiations around the tournament and finally agreed to renew his contract with the NZRFU, surprising many by signing on with the Chiefs franchise. However, a key condition was the continuation of his boxing career, while he is reputed to have not re-signed a long term contract as a global ambassador for Adidas as he would need to keep playing rugby in New Zealand.

Whether he is penned as a mercenary, a contemporary star athlete, a shrewd businessman or all of the above, Williams has been testing the waters for 2013 and beyond as it becomes clear that his sojourn with NZ rugby would most likely be a brief one. He was rumoured to be a likely signing for the Sydney Roosters in the NRL back in January, while the Wests Tigers have also emerged as a possibility for his signature. Now that SBW’s current negotiating skills (or more accurately, list of demands) have been made public, it will be interesting to see how the rugby league clubs and its traditionally conservative community respond to his rigid requests.

He is most certainly an exciting rugby league player but how this process plays out will be intriguing. On the one hand, Williams can not be punished for attempting to maximise his earnings, achievements and celebrity status in the short shelf life that is contemporary professional sport. On the other hand, how he goes about doing these things and how this is reported upon and/or represented in the press are areas that need to be addressed if Williams wishes to endear himself to the public as a more humble, charismatic and scrupulous figure. Not that all this may really matter to Williams if they show Sonny the money!

Warming the Pine

Sport for those with comfortable couches.