Sonny Bill Williams can fill the gaping hole in his impressive sporting resume today by leading New Zealand to a repeat triumph over great rivals Australia in the Rugby League World Cup final at a sold-out Old Trafford.
Since 2009, Williams has flitted between rugby union, boxing and rugby league – and success has followed him everywhere.
He is New Zealand’s top heavyweight boxer after winning all six of his fights, captured World Cup and Super Rugby titles in the 15-man code and this year claimed the Australian NRL title with Sydney Roosters at the end of his first season back in league.
And after being voted as rugby league’s International Player of the Year for the first time on Wednesday, Williams said winning rugby league’s biggest prize three days later “would definitely top everything off.”
“To come away and enjoy time over here with the brothers and put that Kiwi jersey on, for myself I have actually fallen back in love with rugby league this year,” said Williams, who is bidding to become the first player to win World Cups in both rugby codes.
Even with Williams on board, New Zealand head into the game at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, as the underdogs. Australia have not been beaten in their past six meetings with New Zealand and have cruised into the showpiece match, conceding just two points and scoring 210 in their last four games since beating co-hosts England in the tournament’s curtain-raiser.
New Zealand, meanwhile, were seriously roughed up by England in an epic semi-final at Wembley but still came through after scoring a converted try with barely 20 seconds left to win 20-18. “Twelve rounds?” said Williams, the part-time boxer. “It certainly was like that.”
The Australians have bristled at suggestions they will be undercooked going into a match they have waited five years for – since losing 34-20 to the Kiwis in Brisbane in the 2008 final.
“We’ve played Fiji twice, they are a big physical side and when it’s all said and done they finished the fourth best team in the tournament,” said Australia coach Tim Sheens, referring to his team’s 64-0 win over the Islanders in the semi-final. “The scoreline just doesn’t indicate how much ice was on the guys after the game, I can tell you.
“What I was very happy about was that we kept the pedal down for 80 minutes. We didn’t drop off, and haven’t in the tournament. Preparing for the final, we wanted to play the 80 minutes and we have done the whole month. I am hoping that intensity prepares us well for what will be the most intense game of the tournament.”
Like Williams, Australia’s star players won’t be short of motivation, either. Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, who appears to have overcome a knee injury sustained in the quarter-final win over the United States, all turned 30 this year and are unlikely to be around for the next World Cup in 2017.
This may represent their last chance to get their hands on the World Cup, a feat they haven’t achieved amid stellar careers in the NRL and with Queensland.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to win a World Cup – we don’t look at it as a last opportunity,” Australia captain Smith said. “And we don’t see it as a chance to make up for what happened in 2008. Nothing will ever make up for that.
“When our career comes to an end, we aren’t going to look back and judge it off one match, one result. We’d like to think we’ve done a fair few things in our career over multiple matches that people can look back on.”
The biggest crowd for an international rugby league match will watch the World Cup final. Organisers say ticket sales have topped 74,000 – beating the previous record crowd of 73,631 for the 1992 World Cup final between Britain and Australia at Wembley. When the two southern hemisphere giants met in the 2000 World Cup final at Old Trafford, there were 44,329 spectators.
Squads: Australia: C Smith (Melbourne, capt), G Bird (Gold Coast), D Boyd (Newcastle), D Cherry-Evans (Manly), C Cronk (Melbourne), A Fifita (Cronulla), J Hayne (Parramatta), P Gallen (Cronulla), G Inglis (South Sydney), B Morris (St George Illawarra), N Myles (Gold Coast), J Papalii (Canberra), C Parker (Brisbane), M Scott (North Queensland), B Slater (Melbourne), J Tamou (North Queensland), B Tate (North Queensland), S Thaiday (Brisbane), J Thurston (North Queensland).
New Zealand: J Bromwich (Melbourne), G Eastwood (Canterbury Bulldogs), K Foran (Manly), A Glenn (Brisbane), B Goodwin (South Sydney), S Johnson (NZ Warriors), S Kasiano (Canterbury Bulldogs), K Locke (NZ Warriors), I Luke (South Sydney), S Mannnering (NZ Warriors, capt), B Matulino (NZ Warriors), J Nightingale (St George Illawarra), F-P Nu’uausala (Sydney Roosters), E Taylor (NZ Warriors), R Tuivasa-Sheck (Sydney Roosters), M Vatuvei (NZ Warriors), J Waerea-Hargreaves (Sydney Roosters), D Whare (Penrith), S B Williams (Sydney Roosters).