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Sonny Bill's lasting influence

Sonny Bill's lasting influence

Around the 64th minute mark of the Roosters' Preliminary Final against Newcastle, the imposing figure with the No.12 on his back slowly trotted towards the sideline for a break.

With everything else going on, the fans almost didn't notice – but once they did, he received a reception we can safely say no player walking to the bench in rugby league has ever enjoyed before. Really. Ever.

"He's Superman!"

"Please don't leave us Sonny!"

"We've got to keep him in the game!"

Before you knew it, a chant of "Son-ny! Son-ny! Son-ny!" could be heard all the way to Randwick.

There probably isn't a character who polarises league fans as much as Sonny Bill Williams, but there is no denying his freakish talent is admired (if begrudgingly) so much that cheer squads appear wherever he goes.

Whether he stays in rugby league or not, his legacy will be very different to the one he left the first time he exited five years ago.

For those at the Roosters who were meeting the man mountain for the first time in the gruelling depths of pre-season, it didn't take long to realise just what kind of person he was.

"He's the man," Roosters rookie Dylan Napa says simply. "I think him coming back to the game has changed a lot of players' opinions on him. The way we see him train, he's always in physio and always doing extras.

"I think a lot of us were in awe, star struck. He's a pretty big character. But once you get to talk to him he's like one of the boys; he talks as much rubbish as the rest of us.

"They need to do everything to keep him. It would be a shame if he wasn't playing in the NRL next year... hopefully in the red, white and blue."

Napa is one of the youngsters at the club who will benefit immeasurably by having played and trained alongside Williams.

Even Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who is only three years younger than Williams, was nervous when he met him for the first time.

"You know... it was Sonny Bill Williams," Kenny-Dowall says with a laugh. "Even though he's only a couple of years older everyone idolised him for his athleticism and what he could do on the footy field. But since he's been around and we got to know the bloke and what makes him tick, we see a different side to Sonny. He works really hard to get to the level that he is.

"Everyone looks up to him. When he's around all the boys he's very humble and that's what he is, just one of the boys. He inspires a lot of the young guys, and they look up to him. They look up to the way he prepares, the way he performs and the way he carries himself. That's a great role model to have at your club."

On the field, he's given the Roosters a superhuman feeling just by being part of the starting team.

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Opposition teams fear him and his natural athleticism means that more often than not his freakish plays come off. But that doesn't mean they don't leave some people nervous.

"You grit your teeth sometimes when you're coming out of your own end and he takes a run and throws an offload. It's like, 'Ah, hold it!'" laughs Roosters prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. "He does some magnificent things and he's done it all year for us. It does lift the confidence in you. He's one of those players that when you're looking and you see him next to you, it gives you that extra boost and confidence."

Williams has also given team-mates a gift many had never considered until 2008 – that athletic ability can transcend any dreams from being fixed on only one code. Quite simply, the world is your oyster.

"Rugby league is a business and you have to look after yourself," Kenny-Dowall says. "There are two sides to every story and Sonny did the best thing for him back then. He opened up the gates for a lot more opportunities for other players to take, overseas and boxing. He showed that it's possible.

"I think people were sceptical of him coming back but he's proved that he's worth every cent and that he's the world-class athlete that everyone believed him to be."

The 2013 Telstra Premiership Grand Final could be the final 80 minutes of rugby league Sonny Bill Williams ever plays but no matter the result on field and off, the legacy he leaves will have a positive and lasting influence.

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