Glenn Jackson July 14, 2012
Illustration: Edd Aragon
WHEN it comes to grudges, rugby league can hold them like no other. Coaches hate other coaches, players hate Michael Ennis, media personalities hate other media personalities, and if we're going to be honest here, I hate facial hair on referees as well as the bloke who replicates the official's whistle every set at Cronulla games. It's clear many of us have long memories.
We still hate because of Super League, which explains why the exit of Sonny Bill Williams in 2008 is still fresh in the minds of many.
I assume you know Sonny Bill by now. You might know him as $onny Bill, or by his (first) middle name of Dollar. He ditched the Bulldogs 18 months into a five-year deal and fled for France. This week, we have had confirmation he's coming back.
Some memories are clearly selective. At the same time, there is also speculation surrounding the potential return of another former NRL superstar, Israel Folau. The contrast in the responses has been quite obvious. But how different were the exits? Or, possibly more appropriately, how different was the damage they inflicted on the code?
Folau left Brisbane to be the darling of the AFL's push into western Sydney, the poster boy for an organisation hoping to make inroads into important rugby league territory. He was paid a lot of money to do so.
While he didn't walk out in the middle of his contract or the middle of the night, he appeared at a press conference for his future employer while still being paid by an NRL club.
Folau, whose contribution to the promotion of the Giants has been far more valuable than his contribution to the top-grade side, has been the subject of speculation that he will return to the NRL. He says he is staying; others say otherwise.
As a code, we seem ready to welcome Folau back, asserting that it would be some sort of victory over the rival code. Although, really, it would simply be an acknowledgment that he is a better rugby league player than he is an AFL one.
I can't quite grasp why it hasn't been acknowledged yet Sonny Bill's return would be a victory for rugby league. In some ways, it's also a victory over Sonny Bill Williams. He left the code, and now he's back, not quite with his tail between between his legs but with an unspoken acknowledgement that, despite being a World Cup winner with the All Blacks, he wants to play in the NRL competition.
He desires to play in a sport that cannot compete financially with rugby union, reminding me a bit of the kid who runs away from home for a few hours after a fight with his parents before realising that playing in the backyard was a little more enjoyable than playing in traffic.
Back when Williams dogged the Dogs, plenty spat words to the effect of: ''You'll come back when you realise what you're missing.'' Well, he has.
Of course, Sonny Bill is having his cake and eating it, too, and taking part in a food fight into the bargain. Williams will join the Roosters via a lucrative stint in Japanese rugby, and with the blessing of the Roosters to compete in several boxing bouts. That has fuelled the masses into thinking he has fooled rugby league again. Once a mercenary …
I can never agree with the concept that players should not be entitled to earn as much money as they can in the limited time they are at their physical peak. If Sonny Bill Williams can convince his next NRL club, and the Australian Rugby League Commission, to let him come to class a little late, and box a bit in his spare time, he shouldn't be criticised for it.
For every once-in-a-generation player there is a once-was-a-star. For every Sonny Bill Williams, there is a Simon Dwyer. Careers can end in one tackle. Athletes need to make the most of their opportunities; this week, an errant bail ended the career of South African cricketer Mark Boucher.
This is no one-way street, too. Rugby league can capitalise on the opportunity just as Williams can. Is the game, which pines about players switching codes and countries, in a position to knock back a player who will put bums on seats both in stadiums and lounge rooms?
Let it not be misunderstood: the way he left was abhorrent. Bulldogs supporters were quite entitled to feel dudded, for a time. Yet the people who, more than anyone, have the right to bear a grudge are his former teammates. But tellingly, only one of them still plays for the club - Ben Barba, who made his debut just a few days after Williams left the country.
Some of their teammates have retired, others are in Britain, others elsewhere in the NRL. Some would have craved a few more seasons with the Bulldogs, only to be told, with the game being a business, to move on. Really, shouldn't we all?