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Sonny Bill changes his mind on World Cup

October 9, 2013

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Sonny Bill Williams was added to the New Zealand rugby league team on Wednesday for its World Cup title defense in Britain this month after reversing a decision to make himself unavailable.

Williams was omitted from the 24-man Kiwis squad named on Tuesday by coach Steve Kearney after ruling himself out of selection contention. The 28-year-old, who has represented New Zealand at both rugby league and rugby union, said he wanted to take a break from sport to spend time with family.

But Williams backtracked on that decision after the New Zealand squad was named, contacting Kearney to say he was now available. Kearney on Wednesday said Melbourne Storm backrower Tohu Harris had been cut from the squad and Williams had been added in his place.

World Cup organizers have approved the move, although late squad changes are usually only permitted in the case of injury.

Kearney is now likely to face severe criticism over his handling of Williams’ selection and his cynical treatment of the 21-year-old Harris, who has played only one test for New Zealand.

The New Zealand Rugby League offered to allow Harris to travel to Britain with the Kiwis as “a development player” but the Melbourne Storm rejected the offer.

“It’s been a tough situation, but Sonny brings things to the group that we couldn’t ignore,” Kearney said. “He has had time since his NRL grand final win to clear his head and he wants to represent the Kiwis on the world stage.

“He missed our 2008 World Cup win and his inclusion will be a great asset in trying to repeat that success this year. It’s not only his footballing ability, but also what he brings off the field which will benefit the team.”

Kearney said Harris “handled the situation as well as anyone could.

“It was a conversation no coach would like to have, but he’s a terrific young man and I’m sure he’ll have many more opportunities to pull on the black jersey. It’s been a unique set of circumstances for all involved, but for now our focus is getting set to defend the World Cup with the team we have.”

Kearney’s public expression of sympathy for Harris is unlikely to lessen anger in New Zealand at his treatment of a talented young player and his apparent pandering to the wayward Williams.

Williams is a talented player who has won two titles in Australia’s National Rugby League, a Super Rugby title with the Hamilton-based Chiefs and a Rugby World Cup with the All Blacks. But he is also seen to place his own personal ambitions ahead of the interests of his teams.

He walked out on a contract with the Bulldogs in the NRL in 2008 to play rugby union for Toulon in France and was subsequently banned from the Australian league for five years.

He left Toulon to return to New Zealand but stayed only one year with the Christchurch-based Crusaders in Super Rugby before leaving for the Chiefs. He played 19 tests for the All Blacks through the 2011 World Cup, then quit to take up a lucrative short-term contract in Japan.

Williams failed to see out that contract because of injury and headed back to the NRL as soon as his ban had elapsed. He collected his second NRL title last weekend with the Sydney Roosters but has since refused to reveal whether he will stay in rugby league or return to rugby union.

Williams has also carved out a small career in professional boxing. He is the reigning New Zealand heavyweight champion, although he has fought only journeymen to date.