SBW: Sayonara Boy Wonder
August 4, 2012
The Chiefs' Sonny Bill Williams dives into the Waikato Stadium crowd after sealing his side's Super Rugby triumph © Getty Images
As he leapt into their arms after setting the seal on the Chiefs' Super Rugby triumph, you sense the Waikato Stadium faithful wished they could hold onto him forever. It is a sentiment perhaps echoed by the wider New Zealand rugby community and the sport as a whole - such is the impact that Sonny Bill Williams has had during his trophy-laden stay in the sport.
The final showdown with the Sharks was tailor-made for SBW to deliver a leaving present to remember, and he did not disappoint with a barn-storming display to help propel his side to their first title.
The latest in a series of match-defining performances this season was capped with a try and picture-perfect jump into the crowd, where he was warmly embraced by the Chiefs' fans, who will sorely miss his presence as he now packs his bags for Japan and rugby league after a final bow for the All Blacks in the forthcoming Rugby Championship.
Just as he appears to have matured into the world-class player his undoubted talent has always suggested he would become, he will bid New Zealand farewell and leave a significant void not only in the Chiefs' ranks or the All Blacks' line-up, but also the game as a whole.
Williams, a fan favourite who turned 27 on the eve of his latest career landmark, is a more refined player than the one who caused a stir by switching codes with Toulon before returning to New Zealand to link up with the Crusaders and All Blacks.
No longer just a master of the off-load, his all-round game remains on an upward curve with his defensive work and support play now a match for his game-breaking ability with ball in hand. Chiefs coaches Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith must take great credit for the latest strides he has taken in his development - although there remain some rough edges as illustrated by what was at times a questionable tackling technique against the Sharks.
But perhaps they, and the player himself, deserve more praise for his assimilation into the Chiefs squad. A superstar of the world game, amazingly shy of endorsements, has been happy to play his part within a squad boasting an unrivalled team spirit - one that arguably played a pivotal role in their run to the southern hemisphere crown.
The clamour among the marketing men will surely intensify following this latest headline-grabbing show but it will be those in Japan and Australia hoping to tap into Williams' increasing appeal, with their New Zealand counterparts left to mourn his passing on - but they will not be the only ones.
The Chiefs' Sonny Bill Williams acknowledges the crowd as he leaves the Waikato Stadium pitch for the last time © Getty Images
A game painfully short of global stars to spearhead expansion is about to lose a player capable of not only fanning the flames of development but inspiring dreams within a new generation of players, drawn by his allure both on and off the field.
Such is New Zealand's enviable ability to produce and nurture talent that you imagine the pain at the loss of a player of Williams' calibre will not be felt for long. The honour of representing the All Blacks remains the most powerful motivational tool in the sport and another name (perhaps one not so familiar to Google, where Williams' 3.74m 'results' dwarf even the 1m of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw) will step into the fray and do the shirt proud.
That task will not be so simple for the Chiefs, who, despite their formidable team spirit and obvious success, will be wary of bolstering their armoury ahead of their title defence. The answer, in more ways than one, may not be too far away. A fit and firing Richard Kahui, currently battling back from shoulder surgery, would bring some power, pace and flair to the Chiefs' midfield and in his best form would command yet more international honours.
It is also clear that the Super Rugby competition will share the pain given Williams' box office power at home and abroad while the possibility of the sport as a whole finding someone so seemingly able to shoulder the hopes of the game is not so clear. While the likes of McCaw and fellow All Black, and the all-time leading Test points scorer, Dan Carter continue to tower over the game alongside the likes of International Rugby Board Player of the Year, Thierry Dusautoir, none would appear to have the ability or desire to shake things up. That is a young man's domain, something also beyond Europe's other leading lights like Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll - but maybe not one of this generation of Welsh stars.
Should they drag their heels in deciding who is worthy of such acclaim, Williams may well return into the arms of grateful nation as they ready themselves for the defence of their Rugby World Cup crown in 2015. Another stage made for the boy wonder.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.