Sonny Bill Williams on the hunt with Toronto Wolfpack
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 14/11/19 5:56pm
As you make your way over the Ken Friar Bridge towards the Emirates Stadium, the feature that leaps out is the names of some of the great players to have pulled on an Arsenal shirt.
The likes of Cliff Bastin, Thierry Henry and Ray Parlour are immortalised on the walls of the Premier League side's home ground, but the person the media have assembled for on this bright November morning is not a football icon.
He is, however, a superstar of both the 13 and 15-man codes of rugby - and it is in the WM Club suite, nestled inside the Emirates Stadium's East Stand, where newly-promoted Super League side Toronto Wolfpack have chosen to officially unveil him.
A round of applause greets Sonny Bill Williams when he enters the room, stopping to hug Wolfpack chairman Bob Hunter before taking his seat between the Canadian businessman and head coach Brian McDermott.
The global buzz generated by Toronto clinching the 34-year-old on a big-money, two-year deal is emphasised by the fact that media from the UK, Williams' homeland of New Zealand, Australia and Canada are in attendance. But the message from the man himself is clear - this is all about rugby.
"Wherever I go, I know there is a lot of baggage and headline-grabbing things which go along with that, but I want my team-mates and the organisation to know my intention," Williams said.
"I know if I don't perform on the field then there's nothing else to it.
"When I say I'm coming to work, it means I'm coming to do the things people don't see behind closed doors to prepare the best I can to earn the right to be the best I can on the field."
Things will happen while they can
It was in a restaurant in Japan shortly after New Zealand's grip on the Rugby World Cup had been released following their semi-final defeat to England that McDermott and Williams met for the first time.
Although the Wolfpack, then still a Championship team, had been linked with a move for the man, who began his career playing rugby league, as early as February, it was not until the World Cup got underway that talks between the Canadian side and Williams' representatives commenced.
Even then, the man himself was not involved, preferring instead to be fully focused on the All Blacks' quest for a third-straight title. However, once their exit was confirmed then Williams became active in discussions.
"We had a couple of hours over dinner where we machine-gunned each other questions about who we are, what we are doing, and what our intentions and philosophies are," McDermott recalled. "I think we both knew that night it could be good.
"It really boiled down to one question: Are you coming to be a rugby league player on every level? It more than assured me he's there to earn the respect of everyone at the club."
"It really boiled down to one question: Are you coming to be a rugby league player on every level? That's the good stuff and the headline-grabbing stuff, but also the ugly stuff and the hard stuff that you're going to go through.
"I don't think it's appropriate to tell you what his answer was specifically, but it more than assured me he's there to earn the respect of everyone at the club."
McDermott is candid about the fact he does not expect to see the best of Williams until the final third of the Super League season and expects him to take time to adjust back into rugby league after spending the past five years playing union.
The back row is under no illusions about the challenge facing him either, but challenges are something he willingly embraces and, as his multi-faceted sporting career shows - being a former New Zealand heavyweight boxing champion alongside his rugby exploits - he is not afraid of putting in the hard yards.
"Brian has been very transparent with what he expects from me on the field and I've really enjoyed that," Williams said.
"The first 10 rounds [of the season], I'll be trying to fit in with the style Toronto play and earn respect, and I see that as just hard work and it comes with the territory."
The world is watching
Toronto's elevation to Super League after beating Featherstone Rovers in October's Million Pound Game represents a brave new frontier for the competition as it enters its 25th season, with overseas representation previously limited to the short-lived Paris Saint-Germain team and the now-established Catalans Dragons.
The North American outfit's rise through the ranks of the British professional game since joining in 2016 has seen them win plenty of plaudits, but there has been some concern over what their inclusion means for rugby league's traditional clubs in the sport's heartlands.
McDermott is in no doubt their presence will be beneficial for the clubs already part of Super League, however, pointing to how the signing of Williams by Toronto has given the competition exposure it can normally only dream of.
"What Toronto are doing is making people around the world take notice of Super League," McDermott said.
"There were a billion eyeballs on the semi-finals and final of the Rugby World Cup, and how many people of those do you think are clicking on one of the biggest rugby union players in the world and where he's gone?
"They're going to follow where he's gone and take interest. They may have no interest to start with in Super League or the Wolfpack, but they are now going to do that."
"As Toronto players, we're going out there to turn some heads and the amount of support the lads have in Toronto sounds crazy. It's a journey and there's a bit of pressure there, but it's so exciting."
Sonny Bill Williams
The Wolfpack begin life in the top tier against Castleford Tigers on the opening weekend of the 2020 season, and Williams knows both himself and the club will be under scrutiny for how they perform on the field.
But he is eager to ensure there is a long-term future for Toronto, speaking passionately about encouraging the next generation into rugby league and opening up opportunities for players.
"I'm a sportsman, but I need to have that purpose and something to believe in," Williams said.
"As Toronto players, we're going out there to turn some heads and the amount of support the lads have in Toronto sounds crazy. It's a journey and there's a bit of pressure there, but it's so exciting.
"I'm really grateful and blessed for this opportunity, but I understand what I'm coming into and - as a sportsman - what better pressure environment would you want to test yourself in?"