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Sonny Bill Williams bringing X-factor to World Cup

October 21, 2013

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Billed by organizers as 2013′s biggest global sporting event, the 14th rugby league World Cup was in real danger of passing by largely unnoticed only three weeks from its first game.

Now there is a buzz around the tournament, and it’s all because of one man.

Sonny Bill Williams, New Zealand’s headline-grabbing cross-code rugby star, originally ruled himself out of selection for the reigning champions, saying he wanted to take a break from sport to spend time with family.

He has since back-tracked, and he’s now the face of the Europe-wide World Cup starting on Saturday.

He was certainly the talk of Monday’s tournament launch in rainy Manchester on Monday.

“You can just see the hype, the edge he brings, as well as the fans,” United States captain Joseph Paulo said. “People get excited when he’s around. I arrived here in the U.K. a week ago and I saw him on the back page of the newspapers. He’s putting the World Cup out there.”

Whatever team, whatever sport, Williams is a winner. He’s even New Zealand’s top heavyweight boxer, winning all six of his fights. But it’s in rugby where he really stands out.

In consecutive years since 2011, Williams has been a rugby union World Cup winner with the All Blacks, transformed unfancied Waikato Chiefs into Super 15 champions and then switched back to rugby league — the sport he first started playing — to win an NRL title with Sydney Roosters at the start of this month.

Everything he touches turns to gold. It’s no surprise New Zealand went to such lengths to get him in its squad for the upcoming World Cup.

From second-favorites behind Australia, suddenly there’s nothing between the two archrivals, who are expected to meet in the final at Manchester United’s Old Trafford on Nov. 30.

That would be a repeat of the 2008 final, which the Kiwis won 34-20 in Brisbane against all odds.

“He brings the quality of someone who has excelled in three different sports, I think that takes a bit more than just talent,” New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney told The Associated Press. “That takes a drive that exceeds talent.

“It’s about a guy who wants to be the best he possibly can. He’ll turn over every stone to make sure he is. For me, that’s a real benefit for us as a group.”

Kearney had already selected his World Cup squad by the time Williams expressed a desire to play. Kearney subsequently — and controversially — dropped Melbourne Storm backrower Tohu Harris after being given approval by tournament organizers to make a late change.

“To tell a player who’d been selected in the squad that he won’t be there is tough,” Kearney said. “But I will take full responsibility for that. But for us, we are thinking about after the decision has been made. We just have to cop it.”

Williams is worth the trouble he often brings. With tattoos covering his bulging biceps, he is a dynamic, powerful, skillful player who can play in a handful of positions. He has a wonderful offload and makes big plays at big times.

And, as Australia coach Tim Sheens says, he “puts a lot of bums in seats.”

“He lifts the profile (of rugby league),” Sheens said. “He gives (New Zealand) a world’s best in-position player ... It raises New Zealand’s chances tremendously. Just the confidence it gives the Kiwi boys.

“But for us, you’d like to think if you are going to win this tournament, you’ll win it against the best players in the world, not against a team down in numbers.”

Williams is looking to become the first player to win the World Cup in both league and union, which will mark him out as one of rugby’s greats. He is set to return to union in time for the 2015 World Cup in England, so is chasing three world titles in four years.

Controversy has attracted Williams, who was involved in some alcohol-fuelled incidents early in his career. He also walked out on a contract with the Bulldogs in the NRL in 2008 to play rugby union for Toulon in France, earning him a ban from the Australian league for five years.

But he also attracts fans — and that is why organizers are delighted to see him play in a tournament that is always a hard sell, with rugby league widely regarded as the inferior code.

“I went to South Africa and I said I play rugby league,” Paulo recalled. “And this young kid, he was only about 8 years old, he said, ‘Sonny Bill Williams, Sonny Bill Williams!’ I thought, ‘Wow, this guy really is big all around the world.’”

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