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Wolfpack demise means SBW open to NRL offers after neck surgery

Sonny Bill Williams is a free agent after Toronto Wolfpack were denied re-admission to the Super League but is unlikely to make any decision on his future before recovering from neck surgery.

Williams underwent surgery on Monday to relieve pain caused by a vertebrae pressing on a nerve in his neck following an injury sustained playing for the Sydney Roosters in their round 20 loss to South Sydney.

The injury sidelined the dual code superstar from the finals clash against Penrith but Williams starred a week later in the 22-18 semi-final loss Canberra that ended the Roosters premiership hopes.

The 35-year-old is in no rush to decide his next move but would be expected to attract plenty of interest from NRL clubs after his late-season stint with the Roosters.

After being forced to play as a middle forward against the Raiders following the loss of prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Williams produced three off-loads, a try assist, a tackle break and a line-break assist in a 38-minute performance that proved he could still make an impact in the NRL.  

Every touch from SBW against the Sharks

He is likely to concentrate on his professional boxing career at some stage but his initial focus is recovering from the neck surgery.

Once he is feeling fit and fresh again after a season that began in Manchester with the Wolfpack last December, Williams is likely to be open to offers to finish his career in the NRL, the competition where it began as an 18-year-old with Canterbury's 2004 premiership-winning team.

The 8-4 vote against Toronto's return to the Super League will see Williams forego the remaining year of his $10 million deal with the Wolpfack for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

However, money will not be the motivation for Williams to continue playing as he has done well financially from stints with Toulon, Rugby NZ, Japan's Panasonic Wild Knights, Sydney Roosters and the Wolfpack since quitting Canterbury in 2008.

Williams is considered the ultimate professional for the lengths he takes to ensure he is in the best possible physical condition to perform and that will be a significant factor in his next decision.

His influence has been credited for contributing to the Roosters on-going success after his departure at the end of the 2014 season, and was a reason the club was keen for him to return after the Wolfpack's mid-year withdrawal from the Super League. 

If he has played his last match, Williams can bow out satisfied with his last performance and all he has achieved in both rugby codes, including premierships with the Bulldogs and Roosters, and three Rugby World Cups with the All Blacks.

After leading the Roosters to victory in the 2013 grand final, he was named the International Rugby League player of the year at the end-of season World Cup in England.

Despite only playing for the Roosters in 2013 and 2014, he was last year chosen in the NRL Team of the Decade by a panel of experts which included Craig Bellamy, Phil Gould, Trent Robinson, Ricky Stuart, Mal Meninga, Andrew Johns, Bob Fulton and Wally Lewis.

Sonny Bill Williams in action for Toronto.
Sonny Bill Williams in action for Toronto. ©

Williams is only the second player selected for the All Blacks after having represented the Kiwis at Test level and is one of just 14 players in rugby union history to have won successive World Cups.

He was also a member of New Zealand Rugby 7s team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and is unbeaten in seven heavyweight boxing bouts.

If Williams returns to the ring, there would be the possibility of fights against former Cronulla and NSW captain Paul Gallen and former AFL star Barry Hall.  

In other news relating to the Wolfpack's demise, veteran centre Ricky Leutele will also be on the market with the Storm a potential option after the former Sharks premiership winner linked with them briefly at the end of the 2020 season.

In a statement released by the Super League, it said the board considered a number of factors following Wolfpack’s inability to complete the 2020 season and after the club’s owner, David Argyle, stepped down from the organisation before the competition’s restart in August.

Following a review in September of the club’s unsatisfactory first bid for re-inclusion, Super League granted a four-week extension, partly at the request of the club’s prospective new owner, Carlo LiVolsi, to improve its submission.

In that period, Super League also commissioned its own independent research into the commercial opportunities available to rugby league in Canada at this current time or in the foreseeable future.

That committee - which looked at the Canadian broadcast and sponsorship markets - and included two independent experts plus Robert Elstone from Super League Europe and RFL chair Simon Johnson concluded unanimously that operating a team in Canada would not produce material incremental revenue in the short or medium term.

"The board accepts that the decision to reject Toronto Wolfpack’s application will divide the game’s fans – but on the evidence presented to us, it would not be right for the development of the competition for Super League to accommodate a team in Canada in 2021," Elstone said.

"Every opportunity has been given to Toronto Wolfpack to provide the assurances our clubs need.

"However, our review of the club’s recent submission identified a number of areas of concern, particularly regarding the aggressive revenue targets on which the financial forecasts are based.

"As part of our comprehensive investigation into this whole subject, Super League appointed an independent committee of sports industry experts, with representation from The RFL, to examine commercial opportunities for rugby league in Canada.

Sonny Bill Williams greets fans after a Toronto's match against Salford.
Sonny Bill Williams greets fans after a Toronto's match against Salford. ©Alex Whitehead/

"Its findings were unanimous - that operating a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short or medium term.

"Separately, it was also apparent that no assessment of the scale and accessibility of the commercial growth that might accrue to the sport from entering the Canadian market was ever completed prior to the club’s first entry into the sport."

Super League will now look at the season structure for 2021, specifically into whether the 2021 competition would be comprised of 11 or 12 teams. That meeting will be held tomorrow.

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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