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Sonny Bill Williams: Pro Rugby Player, New Zealander, Muslim

Pink tape covers BNZ’s logo on Sonny Bill Williams’ collar. Credit: Getty

Earlier this month, Sonny Bill Williams made his return to professional rugby after a long spell out due to injury. While he was solid, if a little rusty, in his debut for the Blues, of Auckland, New Zealand, his on-field performance wasn’t the main story once the final whistle blew.

The main talking point centred on his uniform. Williams is a Muslim, and he had elected to cover up one of the sponsors on his team’s jersey during the game. The logo belonged to the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ). As Islam forbids financial institutions charging interest and fees on loans, Williams covered it with tape. He later said: ‘I want to be clear that this is nothing personal against the BNZ….My objection to wearing clothing that markets banks, alcohol and gambling companies is central to my religious beliefs.’

Muslim athletes covering sponsors that counter their religious beliefs is nothing new – you may remember Newcastle striker Papiss Cissé refusing to wear the club’s shirt because the sponsor was money-lending company Wonga – but Sonny Bill Williams’ own story is unique.

As far as we can tell, Williams is the only Muslim playing professional rugby union.

So how did he go on to play professional rugby union and rugby league? And how did a New Zealander of Samoan heritage convert to Islam in a nation where the Muslim population is less than two percent? Here’s Sonny Bill Williams’ (SBW) story.

League? Union? Hotel Toilet? What?

SBW decking someone

Williams first rose to the status of professional via rugby league. Now then, there are two types of rugby: League and Union. We could probably waste a whole article explaining the differences between the two, so we won’t. All we’ll say is that in New Zealand both styles are more popular and a bigger point of national pride than, well, pretty much anything.

Williams began his league career in 2004 with a club called the Canterbury Bulldogs. He was a fan favourite thanks to his athleticism, big hits and incredible off-loads – meaning his ability to flick an accurate pass despite being tackled by several enormous men.

He also became known for several off-field incidents. We won’t get bogged down in details, but let’s just say SBW was regularly involved in the booze-fuelled culture often associated with rugby: Think drink-driving, citations for public urination and, most scandalously, getting caught in a ‘compromising position’ in a hotel toilet with an Australian model.

Even so, these incidents only seemed to heighten his reputation in rugby league. So it was a huge surprise when Williams decided to ditch league in favour of rugby union in 2008. This could have been due to his desire to play for NZ’s national team, the All Blacks, but then he went to play for a club in France…

Toulon, France and Islam

Unlike football, where you can ply your trade anywhere and still be in contention for the national side, rugby can be different – especially in New Zealand. If you don’t play for a club in the country then you face an uphill battle to be picked for the national side. So when SBW moved to the union club Toulon, in France, many assumed it was for one thing: money. Much of New Zealand’s rugby faithful felt betrayed.

While SBW was now one of the biggest talking points in rugby, he quietly went about his business on the field in Toulon. Off it, he slowly turned away from the ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude he cultivated playing league. It was during his time in France that he found Islam.

According to CNN, a friendship he developed with a Tunisian family, who shared a one bedroom flat between seven of them, proved pivotal in his conversion: ‘I was real close with them, and I saw how happy and content they were. And to see how they lived their lives, it was just simple,’ Williams explained. ‘One thing I’ve learned over my career is that simplicity is the key. On the field, off as well.

‘I’ve become a true Muslim. It’s giving me happiness. It’s made me become content as a man, and helped me to grow. I’ve just got faith in it and it has definitely helped me become the man I am today.’

Back to NZ then Back to League

After two years in Toulon, SBW returned to New Zealand to play for rugby union side Canterbury in 2010. It was during this time that he made his debut for NZ’s famous national side, the All Blacks. Just as he was making his mark on the national stage, he decided to switch back to rugby league in 2013, where he played for the Sydney Roosters in Australia. As this is frustrating enough just to write, one can only imagine how All Black rugby fans felt.

Yet this didn’t last long, either. In 2014, he switched back to union. As we mentioned at the start, he currently plays for Auckland Blues. How long he’ll stay with the club, or the sport, is anyone’s guess.

Islam Above All

Along with rugby, SBW has competed as a professional boxer throughout all of his wild career choices. Last summer, he also travelled to Rio to represent New Zealand in the Rugby Sevens, a 7-a-side version of the game that was included in the Olympics in 2016 (sadly, he was injured in the first game, and his debut for the Blues was his first time on any pitch since Rio).

The only constant throughout all of this is SBW’s faith. Most notably, he always observes Ramadan, even during the season. When he was at the Roosters he would train at night so he could fast during the day and refuse water even in the middle of a game.

While his early playing days may have been erratic, and his off-field issues irresponsible, it’s obvious that Islam has allowed Sonny Bill Williams to steer through it all.

Covering up a logo on a shirt might not seem like a big deal to some, but for SBW it represents a commitment to his faith – something that’s no doubt helped him through a remarkable, unpredictable and occasionally bizarre career.

For what it’s worth, the Blues have since changed the logo on the collar of his shirt. Good on ‘em.

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