Sonny Bill Williams is still changing the game. And he may yet deliver another body blow to the NRL.
Rugby league has never seen a deal anything like SBW’s $10 million, two-year deal with the Toronto Wolfpack. His $5 million per season windfall is about four times the next-biggest contract paid to a league player and double the next-richest rugby union deal.
All for a player who, despite being arguably the world’s most famous rugby superstar, is past his best at age 34.
What’s next? James Tedesco to Leeds Rhinos for $5 million per season? Kalyn Ponga to Toronto after SBW departs?
When the money is out of this world, that seemingly-ridiculous idea isn’t out of the question. Theoretically, Super League could get any player in the NRL with such cash.
Daly Cherry-Evans is the NRL’s top earner, paid $1.3 million this year. No player would say no to $5 million a year, or even half that. With enough imagination, daring and dollars, anything is possible.
Never mind the NRL missing out on SBW – one of its own biggest stars may be the next marquee man headed to Super League.
“Let’s look at James Tedesco or Sonny Bill Williams. If you’re talking about blokes at the peak of their game, it’s not Sonny compared to James Tedesco, is it?” NRL great Paul Gallen told Wide World of Sports.
“This is a nice, sweet little end to his career, $5 million a year. That’s great for Sonny, but when you’re talking about what blokes are at their absolute peak, James Tedesco would be lucky to be on $1 million a year, $1.2 million maybe. If someone were to offer him $5 million a year – or a Billy Slater or Cameron Smith at their peak, Johnathan Thurston, that style of player – it (poaching) could become an issue.”
SBW – and Toronto’s billionaire owner David Argyle – have resurrected the threat posed to the NRL by the Super League’s marquee player allowance. The rule allows clubs to sign up to two players at whatever price they want, with only £150,000 ($280,000) counted against the salary cap.
It has been lightly used, especially when considering the neon-lights spirit of the allowance rule. Gareth Widdop is a big signing for Warrington next season, but the Wolves’ other marquee is Blake Austin.
Trent Merrin and Konrad Hurrell are marquees at Leeds, while Ben Barba became a marquee man at St Helens for 2017-18 after failing in French rugby, following his exit from the Cronulla Sharks due to a drug ban. Barba returned to the NRL for a Cowboys deal worth $300,000 per season. Wigan marquee George Williams is headed to Canberra next season; not even his specially-exempted salary kept the England Test playmaker from the NRL.
Meanwhile, Toronto’s marquees last season (in the second division) were Ricky Leutele and Darcy Lussick.
The NRL isn’t losing any sleep over those types of player losses. The Super League’s marquee rule, introduced with bullish intent in 2015, has barely landed a blow. Yet that may be about to change.
For one, Toronto is now toying with the idea of ripping NFL escapee Valentine Holmes from the grip of the NRL’s North Queensland Cowboys. Holmes was the world’s best winger, a Test and Origin gun, before becoming a fringe New York Jet. He’s been a loss to the NRL and would be a massive gain for Super League.
Sydney Roosters, NSW and Australia star Tedesco – whose name we’re using purely as an example – is the NRL’s best player and makes less than one-fifth of SBW’s Wolfpack salary. Williams is being paid partly on celebrity; he’s a global superstar, unlike any of the NRL’s top talent.
But what would happen if Tedesco was offered $3 million per season to play in the Super League? What player on earth would say no to their salary being tripled, while going to play in an easier competition that they’re virtually guaranteed to dominate? NRL misfit Jackson Hastings was the Super League Man of Steel this season.
Toronto reportedly paid Leutele, a good-not-great NRL centre, $800,000 a year. An offer for the likes of Tedesco or Ponga would be monumental and mighty hard to turn down. Ponga has been touted for a new contract worth $1.5 million per season … so what if that were to suddenly double, or triple, elsewhere?
It’s the kind of threat that previously only existed in French rugby, and it was diluted by the risk element of getting a player to swap codes and learn new rules on the fly while earning big money.
“But the other thing … $5 million, we’re talking a different league there money-wise, but there’s the prestige and the privilege of playing in the NRL,” Gallen said.
“You’ve only got to look at all the good English players that are coming over here and playing at the moment. It’s the most elite competition in the world and they all want to play in it. But when you’re talking $5 million, it could be an issue in the future.
“You’ve got to have someone who’s going to pay it. A lot of them (Super League clubs) are privately-owned, as is the case here (with Toronto). Someone’s got to part with $5 million.
“I know these blokes have got some coin, but $5 million is a lot of money. There won’t be too many (players worth that). You throw on top of it the prestige of playing in the NRL … I can’t see it happening too much.”
Prestige is worth plenty. SBW once rejected a $6 million contract extension from French rugby’s Toulon, $2 million per season, to sign with New Zealand Rugby Union for about $550,000 per year. Two Rugby World Cup wins later, he is entirely vindicated.
But Williams has always earned big money around the prestigious events; he has not sacrificed conventional legacy, while building also one that is unique. He was already an NRL premiership winner when he scandalously quit the Bulldogs for Toulon; he’s also fit in Japanese rugby and boxing pay days around 58 All Blacks caps, a second NRL title at the Roosters and the Olympics.
Now it’s time for him to cash in again, and the greater impact will be intriguing.
It definitely won’t be a case of player drain in the NRL-Super League dynamic, as we’ve seen in the past. The Super League salary cap for this season was just £2 million ($3.73 million, top 25 players), against $9.6 million in the NRL (top 30 players).
These days, Super League is only a viable alternative for below-average earners in the NRL, players in desperate need of a career reboot, or veterans looking to tick the final box of ‘played abroad’. Apart from Widdop, not even the marquee allowance has directly led to a star player leaving the NRL for the Super League.
The SBW signing is massive. This is a genuine marquee signing, for incredible money. It could be a game-changer, although there are just a few other clubs – Leeds, Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Huddersfield – that might be able to consider a multi-million-dollar plunge for a transcendent superstar. They won’t want Toronto, upstarts who are yet to play their first Super League season, to have all the fun.
Billionaire Marwan Koukash wanted to break the bank for Sam Burgess back in 2015, when he owned Salford Red Devils; which is now a community-owned club. Toronto were ready to launch a bid for Billy Slater before he retired last year. Now, they’ve snared SBW.
Yet Williams has not played rugby league since the end of his stint with the Roosters in 2013-14. He had knee surgery this year and has an achilles rupture in his past.
It may be that Williams, while a marketing smash hit, gives food for thought when it comes to buying ageing greats rather than targeting stars in their prime. Gallen is not entirely convinced that Williams can justify his $5 million price tag at age 34.
“As a player and as a brand ambassador, there’s not too many bigger in the game. You can’t blame Sonny for taking it,” he said.
“Are they going to get bang for buck? I don’t know. When was the last time Sonny played league? 2014. He’s been out of the game for five years and played a game that … I’m not trying to s—can union, but it’s just a different game. The stress and the physicality of union just isn’t the same as rugby league; I don’t care what anyone says, it’s just not.
“The one positive is he’s going over and playing in the English Super League. From all reports in the English Super League, there’s probably the five or six good teams and the rest aren’t that good, so he’s not going to be playing against the standard of the NRL every week. But in saying that, they’re going to expect to see a bit from him, paying him that much money a year.
“At his age, is his body going to hold up? That’s the question that remains to be seen. I’m not going to bag him and say I hope not, or no it won’t; I hope it does for him. I hope it does for the game and the sport.
“I just spent two weeks in the UK. The people in the north of England love their rugby league, friggin’ love it. They’re just so into it. I hope it works out, it’s good for the game as a whole. But the proof’s going to be in the pudding and seeing what Sonny puts out after the first 12 months.”
There is little doubt what Tedesco would offer. He would carve the Super League to pieces. Barba was a megastar over there despite being a diluted version of his 2012 Dally M-winning days.
And Tedesco is at an interesting phase of his career where he has ticked virtually every box. He’s a dual premiership winner who has also won two State of Origin series and played for Australia. He’s a Dally M Medallist, a Wally Lewis Medallist and a twice Brad Fittler Medallist.
On one hand, he’s got plenty more to achieve at age 26; he could build a legendary career. On the other, he’s already done plenty and might be tempted to chase a new opportunity if it came with an outrageously-large cash incentive.
The Super League is finished as a consistent threat to the NRL’s playing ranks. But perhaps it now has an occasional gut-punch up its sleeve, targeting a Tedesco-calibre player with irresistible money.
“You’ve still got to have the bloke over there willing to pay it and they may be few and far between,” Gallen said.
“And the quality of the NRL, there’s always players coming along. Who would have thought there’d be another Andrew Johns, then along comes Johnathan Thurston. Anthony Minichiello, next minute, Billy Slater. Billy Slater’s gone, Kalyn Ponga and James Tedesco. The NRL will always produce players, so I don’t see it being that big an issue.
“It may happen, and well done to the player because they’ve got to make what they can, it’s a professional sport. But someone’s always going to come along to replace them.”