“I get pretty emotional talking about it, bro,” Sonny Bill Williams says quietly as he explains how he feels whenever, like now, he reflects on his extraordinary life. Williams has won the World Cup twice with the All Blacks and been a superstar in rugby league, where he lifted two NRL titles in Australia. When he switched codes he won a Super Rugby title and played rugby sevens in the Olympics and became New Zealand’s heavyweight boxing champion.
Williams has also overcome low self-esteem, a drinking problem, a wayward life and rediscovered himself in Islam. He is now retired from rugby, having played at the highest level for 16 years, but he speaks out against prejudice while dedicating himself to his new career as a professional boxer.
“I’ve felt ecstatic, with pain and sadness too, some tears,” Williams says. “But I always say a better man makes a better athlete. People might think that’s some fairytale cliché but the better man knows himself much more truthfully. He knows the reason why he is strong in some things and weak in others. That’s why I’m still a work in progress. It’s been my life – making mistakes and getting better. I hang my hat on the hard work, the strength to learn from my failures and the strength to carry on.”
He has just written his autobiography, with the Maori novelist Alan Duff, and the book is as compelling and open-hearted as Williams is on this Zoom call from Sydney. It is full of the beguiling Sonny Bill sunshine, which I’ve felt on both occasions I’ve interviewed him, that sits in contrast to the darker strands of his story. That same contradiction is at the core of his character. The first time I met Williams, in 2013, I was struck by his shyness which seemed so different to the audacity of his play and his reputation as a glittering but troubled rugby icon.
“It was a daily struggle, always,” he says now of his shyness and low self-esteem. “It was like fighting demons every day. Everyone has their own mental struggles and those were mine. I always knew I could play, and I backed my ability, but I was so different off the field. You’re seen as a leader in the team because you’re one of the best players. Of course you should be leading and talking, but, man, the coach would ask me a question in the dressing room and … boof!”
Williams parodies himself crumpling in embarrassment. “I would think: ‘Just get me on the field, because that’s where I feel at ease, that’s where I can express myself with my tackling or making a break or flash off-load.’ That stuff was born in the back yard where, as little Island [Polynesian] kids, we played with freedom because you haven’t got much. But when you play football, the flash comes out, the quickstep. As Islanders we’re very physically strong and so you’re looking to match each other’s toughness and skill. From the outside it looked like: ‘Who does this guy think he is? He’s got all the confidence.’ But it was a constant struggle.”
His dad, John, a hard man who came from a brutal background and battled to show how he loved Sonny and his family in working-class Auckland, was Samoan. His inspirational mum, Lee, a white woman, was the opposite in her ability to express love while retaining a feisty edge. The book helps Williams understand his dad’s past more deeply, and they are close now, but his own pale skin meant he was questioned by the Polynesian and the more privileged white kids.
Rugby league helped him to find acceptance and, at 14, Sonny Bill signed a contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs in Sydney. At 18 he made an explosive debut in the NRL. As his fame grew and he was plunged into unsettling social situations, he fell into drinking and drug-taking as a way of escaping his inner torment.
In 2005 he was convicted of drink-driving and the Bulldogs wheeled him out for a press conference without giving him the help he needed. Even when he found refuge in the Muslim community, which included Anthony Mundine, the boxer, some people in rugby were dubious.
“You’re aren’t turning Muslim, are you?” Williams was asked with a concern he had not been shown before. Williams tried to make a joke of it but, on the inside, he felt lost and angry.
“We’re still in a place like that today,” he suggests, “albeit in professional sports there’s so much talk about help at your fingertips from nutrition to mental health. But all we’re doing in sport is putting a plaster that gives temporary cover to our hurt on the inside. I would make a big mistake, like drink-driving, and I’m remorseful. I really need help but as soon as I start playing well again it’s like: ‘He’s reborn, he’s back!’ But my life is still full of trouble. I was playing some of the best footie I ever played, and living the so-called dream, but deep down I was very unhappy.”
He was full of self-loathing when, in 2008, the All Blacks’ Tana Umaga asked him if he would consider switching codes and moving to Toulon. Williams seized the chance for a new start and, while branded a mercenary and a traitor who was interested only in money, the move cost him AUS$1m (£540,000). He was taken to court by the Bulldogs and only the generosity of Mundine and others helped him find a loan to buy his way out of Sydney. The financial loss was worth it because Williams transformed himself in France.
“It was such a blessing,” Williams says of his two years in Toulon. “I went through so much hardship but the simplicity of being in France allowed me to be myself. I was relatively unknown in Europe and I had left this bubble in Sydney where everyone knows who you are. In Europe the ego took a mad punch to the face. But you ask yourself this question: ‘Who am I? I’m just a little blip in this world.’ I became really close to a Tunisian family. They were living in the projects, and had little in their lives, but I saw their happiness. I spent a lot of time with them.”
The Tunisians were also Muslims and, rather than stay every night in the swanky villa Toulon had given him, Williams slept on the floor of their little family home. “They were grateful to eat, grateful for the roof over their heads, grateful for the clothes they had. It helped me put myself back together and then, on the field, it was a massive learning experience. But I learnt how to play rugby [union] from the best – Jonny Wilkinson.”
The profound relationship between Wilkinson and Williams is striking. It is also moving to think of these two sporting superstars both being terribly shy, constantly driven and always questioning themselves. “I couldn’t have dreamt of all the help that Jonny gave me,” Williams says. “I came to France carrying a million-dollar debt, full of doubt, but I just jumped on that train, playing a game I had never played before, and it was humbling.
“I don’t know if I would have played for the All Blacks if not for Jonny. He really gave me that kick-start of believing in myself as a rugby player. After the first couple of days I was thinking: ‘Man, what a good person he is.’ I also knew he was one of the special ones. He had lead England to the World Cup in Australia [in 2003] and I was in awe when I saw how he operated. His work ethic was inspiring.
“He was the reason why Toulon were so successful in those years, because he was the catalyst. Every day, there would be five or six guys waiting for him after training. He went from one to the other, giving them 10 minutes each. Then he would come to me and say: ‘OK, Sonny, this is what we need to do.’ It was the same in matches. He showed me how to play.”
Williams played 58 times for the All Blacks and in three World Cups, helping New Zealand to win the tournament in 2011 and 2015. Before the 2011 final, with the country a nervous wreck after failing to win the World Cup since 1987, the All Blacks’ then assistant coach Steve Hansen pleaded with Williams not to try any outrageous off-loads. New Zealand just beat France 8-7. Four years later, Williams was true to himself and he unleashed some sumptuous off-loads in the final – the first of which was the culmination of a dazzling run from halfway. Even when he was gang-tackled by a desperate Australian defence he slipped a delicate little offload to Ma’a Nonu who scored a suddenly simple try.
Other memories of Williams endure. I can see still him comforting South Africa’s Jesse Kriel who was in despair after the 2015 semi-final. I remember him giving his World Cup winner’s medal to 14-year-old Charlie Line, who had been tackled by security men when he ran on to the field.
“Some people got upset,” he recalls. “I was back in the shed and Shag [Hansen, who had become head coach] said: ‘Did you give your gold medal away?’ He looked offended and I said: ‘It’s no big deal. What we did is about more than a medal.’”
Williams is still in touch with Line as he is now with me. We swap email addresses after the interview and the first message of sunshine from Sonny Bill arrives the next day. It helps that we are both smitten by the brutal old business of boxing, me as a writer and the 36-year-old Williams as a professional fighter. He has had eight bouts so far, winning them all, but it is only now that he can dedicate himself to the most exacting and dangerous of all sports.
“I’m doing this for two years,” he says, “and leaving no stone unturned. I’ve got so much to learn, like even just holding your hands up for 12 rounds. But I love it, bro, I really love it.”
Williams also sounds, after all the turmoil and glory, at peace with himself. Islam and boxing, those contrasting disciplines, have brought him to a serene place. “Deep down we have the answers but we just need to simplify it and have the daily discipline. That’s why Islam hits my soul because it’s the discipline of praying five times a day, and being so grateful for my wife and four young kids. Yes, the struggle’s real but they love me and I love them. I don’t always get it right but I’m striving to be a better person. Boxing is helping.”
Williams looks up and smiles. “I actually love the loneliness of boxing. People say they hate the loneliness but I love being alone. Today I was hitting the bag by myself and it was such a calm feeling. There’s a real strength there but you need that discipline. It’s the glue that holds everything together so we can strive to be great at whatever we want.”
You Can’t Stop the Sun From Shining by Sonny Williams is published by Hodder & Stoughton.