After 1721 days, the moment for the Bulldogs revenge against former fugitive Sonny Bill Williams has arrived – but club legend Terry Lamb has warned fans attending tonight’s Sydney Roosters-Canterbury blockbuster to remain sensible in their sledging of the Kiwi star.
Canterbury supporters have earmarked tonight’s clash at Allianz Stadium on their NRL calendars since Williams announced his 2013 rugby league comeback for the Roosters, almost five years after he walked out on the club unannounced and fled for France.
The NRL, the Roosters and the Bulldogs have launched a combined effort to combat any potential unsavoury conduct from still-bitter fans attending the match, with upgraded security measures and a series of big-screen messages from former Rooster Brad Fittler and ex-Bulldog Andrew Ryan used to help quell any potential unsightly behaviour and ensure all spectators enjoy the match in the right spirit.
Lamb says Bulldogs fans should feel they have the right to let Williams hear their thoughts, but warns any overstepping of the mark will only bring down the name of the club – not the man who walked out on them on July 26, 2008.
“Of course [they should], that’s natural, absolutely,” Lamb says when asked of supporters’ rights to sledge ‘SBW’.
“[Supporters] should be sensible though. It’s been five years since Sonny shot through and I think we should be nice and relaxed. We can give him plenty verbally, but not be silly about it. Everyone’s got to behave. This is about football, not about what happened five or six years ago.
“They can [sledge] with posters and that but I think it’s important not to get too personal about it. If they’re going to be stupid about it they’re going to bring the Canterbury football club’s name down, not Sonny Bill’s.”
Few people in the game understand the impact Williams’ sudden departure had on the Bulldogs more than Lamb. The 262-game Canterbury five-eighth was on the Bulldogs’ books at the time, and he saw first-hand how the back-rower’s exit affected his Canterbury team-mates and ultimately contributed to their late-season slide that finished in an eight-match losing streak. Lamb says he now knows “what kind of person” Williams is and says it’s time to “forgive, but never forget”.
“I was coaching reserve grade at the time,” Lamb, still involved with the Bulldogs as an ambassador for the club, says.
“It was more of a shock to everybody than anything else. Virtually we had no idea what was going on. It was all over the radio before we knew about it and people were ringing each other up going: ‘What’s going on?’ It was complete shock and disbelief more than anything else.
“Everybody was hurting – players, officials, fans – but he made a decision to do it and we know what kind of person he is so I think it’s a case of forgive but never forget.”
The first Sydney match of Rivalry Round marks a big test for the Bulldogs, who have won just one of their five matches this season. Last year’s grand-finalists have been below par thus far in 2013 – although admittedly they have been without a host of stars including the injured Sam Kasiano and the suspended James Graham and Krisnan Inu – and will be desperate to claim two competition points from the match. The Roosters, meanwhile, have begun 2013 in promising fashion under new coach Trent Robinson, claiming victory in three of their first five matches.
“It’s very important to win [tonight] – we’re one out of five at the moment so we’re not going very well,” Lamb says.
“But you don’t win a grand final or get in the semis at the start of the season.
“Sonny’s a great sportsperson and it’s great to see him back in rugby league but that’s where it begins and ends. We’re playing the Roosters as a team – not just Sonny Bill – and we’re hopefully going to get a win out of it on Friday night.”
Some of the Roosters, meanwhile, are relishing the hype around SBW in the lead-up to the Canterbury clash. They’re prepared for a tough tussle of semi-final intensity against a Bulldogs team desperate to find their way back onto the winners’ list.
“At the end of the day… [the Bulldogs are] looking to find some form and we don't want to let them find it against us,” Roosters five-eighth James Maloney says.
“[The Williams hype] is great for me. Sonny deals with everything that comes up. It's just, I suppose, the way his life is, really.
“He draws a crowd everywhere he goes, so it's nothing new for him.
“As a side, we're sort of shutting it all out and just focusing on what we need to do. It'll make for a fiery game, no doubt.”