Matt Encarnacion, , Big League
IT really didn’t matter what the walking headline did throughout the first five rounds, this is the part of the comeback trail where Sonny Bill Williams is supposed to feel the wrath. And let’s not pull any punches – it’d probably be quite dangerous if we did – this epic showdown was circled on the NRL calendar long before any of us knew what we were even doing last Christmas.
And it’s not so much because of the obvious – the return of Williams (below) against his old club brings a whole new meaning to the abused term, ‘grudge match’ – but because for perhaps the first time in rugby league history, this one isn’t player versus player. It isn’t even coach versus coach.
This is player versus fans, and primarily, the ones in blue and white.
“Ever since he signed with them, everyone’s been fired up for this game. They’re ready for this,” says Bulldogs Army ringleader Tina Landayan.
“When he first signed, I honestly felt it was a kick in the face. The way he left us, and the way he’s returning... it’s an insult to every Canterbury supporter that supported him.”
It’s not as though many of the current Bulldogs’ batch themselves can still pick at the wounds left by Williams’ dishonorable exit five years ago. In fact, then-newly named CEO Todd Greenberg was still waiting for his name to be put on his door at the time, while an even more baby-faced Ben Barba could barely set foot in a bar, let alone hang out with the Epic Bender Crew.
But while little remains of the team Williams left with nothing but a wooden spoon, even after half a decade, the scars are fresh in the stands.
Bulldogs fans’ blood boils at the sight of the player whose talents they once indulged – and whose potential the club funded itself on – now wearing blue, white and red.
As Roosters Chookpen headman Mario Facchini so eloquently puts it, they might as well just be seeing red.
“Let’s make no bones about it, he did walk out on the ’Dogs for whatever reason. The general public is not going to know what that reason is, but perception is reality,” Facchini says.
“He walked out. And when you have such a young superstar – who is slated to be the linchpin of your team for many years – walk out like that, yeah, you can understand why the fans still have the hatred and are angry.
“I don’t think any of the Bulldogs players currently do [have that anger] because there’s none of them left from when Sonny Bill was there. But in the stands, you can understand. It’s effectively like Mitchell Pearce walking out on the Roosters tomorrow.”
Before his middle-of-the-night exit in 2008, Williams had averaged 129 metres and 24 tackles in 11 games. As he led the team in line-break assists and offloads, he topped the competition on the highlight reel, too.
“He was our superstar,” Landayan sums up. “He was the guy that we relied on to do something magical to kick-start the team and their performance. And then to lose him, especially the way we did, was the worst thing. If he had to go, then fine. But to walk out…”
In just five games in post-rugby and boxing, his stats are almost identical. While his average metres are down (84.8), he makes 27 tackles a game and leads the team in line-break assists and offloads. He hadn’t missed a tackle until last Sunday.
“He was the young gun back then,” Facchini recalls. “He had that cockiness about him, that air that made him invincible. But he copped a lot of injuries so he copped it from the fans.
“Even when we played the ’Dogs, he was always out injured and never any good because of that. But the fact is he had talent. His running and offloading, while we only saw it in patches over four years, he was just starting to grow.
“That’s why the ’Dogs fans are so angry, because he just started scratching the surface of how good he was. Rather than that air of cockiness, now he’s matured. People throw that argument that he’ll walk away if he doesn’t like anything, but I don’t think he’s that sort of person anymore.”
And for the record, Landayan doesn’t care that much anymore anyway. With a record of 1-4 to start 2013, the long-time supporter admits the Bulldogs need its army more than the army wants to start firing away at Williams.
“A lot of the fans need to think about the Bulldogs rather than the night just being about Sonny Bill. The club doesn’t want this to be about the fans versus Sonny Bill. At the end of the day, we just need to get a win,” she says.