Sonny Bill Williams was watching Thursday night’s match between Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra when his wife Alana suggested rookie Dragons playmaker Tristan Sailor looked young enough to still be at school.
“I said 'his old man, Wendell, is a legend. I used to play against him. That’s how old your husband is',” Williams said.
The 35-year-old, who this week celebrated his birthday with Alana and their four children at their quarantine hotel in Sydney, confirmed that he had believed his days of playing in the NRL were gone after signing a $10 million contract with Toronto Wolfpack at the end of last season.
After finishing the two-year deal, he planned to retire but the Wolfpack’s withdrawal from Super League created an opportunity for the dual code superstar to return to the Roosters where he helped Trent Robinson establish the foundations of what has become a dynasty in 2013 and 2014.
“My mindset was that I would just play this year and one more year and that is definitely going to be it,” Williams told NRL.com.
“I was going to retire at the end of next year but that fell through so we are here now. I am still contracted to the Wolfpack for next year and that door is still open but I don’t know what will come of it.
Roosters champing at the bit for SBW’s return
“At this stage I am just grateful for this opportunity and really excited and determined to make the best out of this situation.”
Since his arrival from Manchester last week, Williams, Alana and their four young children have been in quarantine.
He has been following a training program created specifically for him by Roosters head of performance Travis Touma, analysing video footage compiled by Robinson and his coaching staff and watching NRL matches.
After a five-year absence, Williams is impressed by what he has seen and compared the standard of Thursday night’s match, won 24-16 by the Roosters, to a finals game during his previous stint in the NRL.
“The depth is unreal and it was such a high quality game,” he said.
“Probably back when I was last playing that would have been a finals-style game. You had high completion rates and end-to-end stuff so it just shows how far the game has come.”
While some who don’t know Williams may question whether he can still have an impact on the NRL 17 seasons after his debut for Canterbury in 2004, he’d rather try and fail than to never know.
He helped the Bulldogs to a premiership in his first season and repeated the feat with the Roosters when he returned from rugby union in 2013.
Sonny Bill Williams demolishes Bulldogs
“I still have a bit of anxiety, a bit of fear and all of that sort of stuff but I just pull it back and go back to my foundation, which is hard work, having a routine and being grateful for the opportunities that I have, what I have in my life and the blessings that I have,” Williams said.
“In regards to coming back and playing NRL at the age of 35, it is just one of those things. I am going to be the man in the arena, well you have got to be vulnerable to do that, and if you don’t have a bit of vulnerability in your life you are never going to try.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen? I fail? I don’t make the team? Well humbly, I have had a great career so my philosophy right now is that I am just going to give it a crack and we will see how that goes.”
During the five seasons he spent playing rugby union in New Zealand and for the All Blacks, including at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups and 2016 Olympic Games, Williams maintained contact with Robinson, Roosters supremo Nick Politis and others at the club.
Robinson expects SBW will still have an impact
It is unlikely he would have returned to play with any other club and now has his sights set on re-uniting with 2013 grand final team-mates Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend, Mitch Aubusson, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Daniel Tupou to help the Roosters to a third consecutive premiership.
“I feel like they have a really good system there and that is not only down to Robbo but the people they have in the club from Nick down to Cathy, who works in the office and everyone calls aunty,” he said.
“It’s a buzz there and then they have the facilities. From my experiences I see that as a recipe for success and then you add you that core leadership group who young guys want to follow and be like. That is why you have good players thinking ‘I want to be a Rooster’.
“I have always admired it from afar so I am really looking forward to getting in amongst it and I am really grateful to have that opportunity to have that almost last hurrah to get back involved because I was there when it all started with these guys.”
NRL players open to SBW return
The training that Williams is doing now is to prepare him for when he is able to join his team-mates in another week and Robinson is not expected to thrust him immediately into action.
“The great thing about coming back here to the Roosters is that I believe they have world class coaching staff and even more importantly for players coming through they have a world class medical team, whether that be physio, trainers, head of performance all the way to coaches,” he said.
“I am very grateful for the time they have put into a little program for me. It is about little things to prepare my body as well as it can be to maximise the next couple of weeks once I get out so I can hit the ground running.”
The fitness program alternates between a demanding day of training with morning and afternoon sessions followed by a day of low intensity sessions, such as yoga.
“I have just always been a hard trainer and the problem I have found getting older is that the recovery aspect is something I have struggled with because I have just wanted to be go, go, go and my body hasn’t been able to keep up,” Williams said.
“The program they have me on is one tough day, where I train pretty intensely, and then one day focused on rehab and recovery. On those days I usually do a bit of video analysis as well.
“It’s almost like a pre-season but I enjoy it. It makes the days go quicker and I am lucky that I have a supportive wife who understands when I am doing my training and then I try to help out with the kids when I finish training.”