Sonny Bill Williams holding his autobiography, You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining
Sonny Bill Williams and his autobiography, You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining (Photo: Mona Seiuli; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksOctober 11, 2021

‘Honestly bro, it was hard’: SBW on the whiteness of the NZ rugby establishment

Sonny Bill Williams holding his autobiography, You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining
Sonny Bill Williams and his autobiography, You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining (Photo: Mona Seiuli; Design: Tina Tiller)

Half the All Blacks are Māori or Pasifika – so why are the media, coaches and management overwhelmingly white? With his memoir being published tomorrow, Sonny Bill Williams talks to Jamie Wall. 

League, rugby, World Cups, boxing titles, father and now commentator. Sonny Bill Williams has been New Zealand’s most talked-about sportsman in a professional career that goes all the way back to 2003, mostly due to the fact that he’s seemingly done it all. 

All except tell his side of that story – but that changes tomorrow with the release of his autobiography You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining, which was written with Alan Duff. Williams’ journey on and off the footy field has not always been the dream run that it appeared. The book is an honest account of his struggles with the drug culture of the NRL, his infamous departure from the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in 2008 and conversion to Islam, among many other things.

But there was one specific part that really resonated with me. Williams writes:

After I retired, I had an offer to become a rugby league and union commentator for the Nine and Stan networks. I was ready to take on that challenge, and though I knew I had a lot to learn, I was ready to step up and do it. When I told my old man, he said, “But don’t you have to be a rugby person to do that job?” I was shocked and a bit dirty. I was the winner of two Rugby World Cup medals, winner of a Super Rugby championship, I had won two NRL grand finals and played over 300 professional games in both codes. Wasn’t I a rugby person?

I reacted strongly, even angrily, but when I thought about it later, I realised my father was just expressing his colonised Sāmoan outlook of, We are not good enough…that attitude has long been indoctrinated in Pasifika and Māori people.

It hit home because of my own opinions on the way Williams’ career had been covered, as well as being a Māori journalist mainly covering the All Blacks. He sat down and talked to me from his home in Sydney, where he tackled that subject – after a lengthy chat about fatherhood and Auckland club rugby league – over Zoom.

A sea of white male journalists, seated, face Sonny Bill Williams and a few other players (obscured) at a press conference. He looks uncomfortable, sitting awkwardly and scratching his head.
October 19, 2011, a press conference in Auckland in the run-up to the World Cup final against France (Photo: William West/AFP via Getty Images)

The Spinoff: How did it feel, all that time when you were playing, when you’d sit down and look out at a press conference of Palagi faces, knowing they’re the ones that are writing the headlines about you?

SBW: Honestly bro, it was hard, and that’s the reason why I think things have to change. There’s an argument of “well, they’re not up to it”. Well why can’t we train our people to be up to it and open those pathways [for journalism]? Because I feel like when you connect with a certain life experience, you get a response. When I’m sitting there and looking out, I ask myself have any of these dudes walked the walk? My walk? Have they seen what I’ve seen? I know with that mindset, of getting more Pasifika and Māori in that space, then the narrative will naturally change. The reason why we do things the way we do will become known, like the reason such and such didn’t want to come talk to the media that day isn’t because he’s an arsehole, it’s because his cousin in Sāmoa passed away and he had to give his time to that, you know? It’s more the understanding of Māori culture, island culture, more understanding and that kind of buzz.

The only way that can change is not through a dude from down in Christchurch who went to private school and broadcasting school to come out and bag the way a guy like Ofa Tu’ungafasi plays. Like, Shut. Your. Mouth. But that’s where we’re at. In Australia there’s no representation in terms of media, at board levels it’s exactly the same, actually probably even worse. 

What would have been different during your career had there been more diversity in the media, would you have been more comfortable saying things?

Whether I was comfortable or not, I still said what I said and did what I did. I think that’s derived from my mum (Lee)’s activist type of mindset. Like if you’re doing what’s right, just go do it, when I see injustice I just try and play my role. I’m about what’s positive, anything else doesn’t motivate me, so when it comes to that space where we’re talking about colour and ethnicity, well knowledge is key. With my journey of self discovery, what I’ve learned is a lot about colonisation, dawn raids, and understanding why I have really low self-esteem and why I don’t think I can achieve in this space. I understand that it stems from these things.

I never saw anyone in my family in a position of power, privilege or wealth. Everyone was just struggling. If that’s all you see, you only know what you know. With the knowledge, it allows me to put the vulnerability hat on and be like man, I can change things. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book.

Old family photo of a young couple with a preschooler and a baby, both looking like mischief. Taken in the 80s.
Baby SBW with his parents Lee and John Senior, and his big brother Johnny (Photo: Supplied)

I think a lot of people who read the book are going to be pretty surprised that you suffer from low confidence, given how you played footy. How can you use your role as commentator to change things with young people who might be feeling the same?

Honestly Jamie, straight up, I wish I knew. I just have to walk that talk. To be quite frank, I don’t need this job and right now I don’t enjoy it. I don’t like putting myself in that space. But I try to step back and see the bigger picture: a young version of me could see that on TV and say “Hey, he looks like me. He’s wearing the same clothes and shoes and he’s doing that job. I can do that.” That’s what I tell myself because honestly sometimes man, the pressure of that job is worse than playing a massive game of footy. 

I agreed to do the book and commentary thing because I wanted to feel a bit uncomfortable, then the growth will come naturally. The book goes into places I didn’t really want to talk about, but I thought nah, that’s the growth. I can’t tell my kids to be strong in what you believe in and venture down an educational path if I haven’t done it.

But it’s still a grind, bro.

The last time I talked to you was after your last game for the All Blacks, in Tokyo. You made a suggestion that going forward the All Blacks should have Māori or Pasifika influence in their coaching staff, what made you say that then? Did you feel it was your last chance to make that statement?

I was sitting next to Sam Cane and he was like “What the?” and I was looking at him like “I SAID WHAT I SAID!” I thought why not say it? It was my last time to say something as an All Black, what was really on my mind. I’ll never retract that comment at all, I’ll stand by it till the day I die. Fifty percent of players playing the game in New Zealand are Māori, Pasifika. Arguably the greatest rugby playing nation in the world, we could roll out three sides that would all dominate. 

It’s been great right now, the team has been performing, the coaches have been performing, but that’s missing the point, Jamie. The point is about these 50% and the connection and understanding, helping them become better men. In pro sports it’s all about results, I’m not going to lie, but that particular thought process should never be far off. It shouldn’t be wild for me to say something like that. Same argument as before: if no one is up to it, put some effort into making sure someone is. In the bit in the book about the coaches I have played under, it’s really the substance, not the coaches. They have to be motivators, if you have those guys and you need them to be playing at 100% each week, it’s got to be more than just football. There needs to be someone they can connect with in a colour and ethnicity space.

Sonny Bill Williams and Ofa Tu'ungafasi in the foreground, in All Blacks kit, embracing, on their knees; in the background, aftermath of a rugby match.
SBW and Ofa Tu’ungafasi at the 2019 World Cup semi between England and New Zealand (Photo: David Ramos/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Did you feel in the All Blacks that you were having to conform to a Palagi/Pākehā culture?

Oh no, I never felt like that. That’s what I loved about the All Blacks. We did a lot of things around respecting heritage and it’s great that Ardie Savea is in there now as a Pasifika captain. But that’s not my point. It’s about trying to go a bit deeper, not just ticking a box. I can see it, like with Ardie and Akira Ioane feeling comfortable in their skin. Obviously Ian Foster has made some moves in that space, he understands the power of making those guys feel comfortable and adding value.

So it seems like Foster is doing a good job of that?

Of course, and he had to. The All Blacks wouldn’t be performing the way they are if he didn’t. I just always think there can be more done, both for the team and our people. Lead with empathy, glass half full, what can be instead of what can’t be. Understanding no one’s perfect.

The book details all the things you’ve done in your career. I’ve always been fascinated about how you’re very much a league player who had just decided to go and do other things, with great success. Is that how you see yourself?

To be honest, not really. I definitely grew up in a league household where even talking about rugby was frowned upon, so I was always a hearty league player but rugby grew on me, bro. I hadn’t watched a game of All Black rugby until Hong Kong when I was on our first tour! But I came to a place where I ended up loving rugby and what it stood for. I came back to New Zealand to play with the best in the world and use what I’d learned from Jonny Wilkinson and Tana [Umaga, while at the Toulon club in France]. But, during that time, playing ITM Cup for Canterbury before a game against Southland I got asked what the Ranfurly Shield is and I said “Umm, yeah I think I know?” Sammy Whitelock says to me “Southland, yeah we should pump them with the team we’ve got, but because of that Shield this is gonna be one of the hardest games you’ll play for a long time.”

Then Super Rugby, the first year after we lost the final and seeing it on the faces of guys like Kieran Read, how much it meant. I made my All Black debut at Twickenham, I’d never really understood the significance but then I was like “Now I know what this was about.”

Absolutely radiant young family with four young kids, crammed onto a couch, selfie taken by woman at right of frame.
Zaid, Imaan, Aisha and Essa, with SBW and wife Alana (Photo: Supplied)

In the book you’ve been really open and honest about the struggles you went through early in your career. It’s easy to forget that you were only 17 when you started at the Bulldogs. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen some young NRL players in the headlines for the wrong reasons, including Reece Walsh, who has a similar story to yours in terms of the expectations put on him. What advice would you give him right now? Also what advice would you give to the media covering them?

It’s hard bro, because it’s about understanding that these young guys are a product of society. Fame, wealth, I’ve been there. For me, the media needs to show some empathy. For those boys, it would be for them to understand that where they are is a blessed position. Millions of people play sport around the world and only a few get to a position where they can enjoy the fruits of their labours. So you have to make sure you’ve got the people that want the best for you around you, the people that can tell you how it is. But then again I have a mad understanding of where those boys are at, because how do you tell a young guy that? I know that because I went through my troubled times and was being real selfish, I was just living my life. I was abusing myself with substances, but that’s how it was in our society. Who was gonna pull me up? My inner self, I knew it was wrong, but it still never stopped me.

For me I had my faith, that pulled me back from that dark place. But I know that’s not for everyone, so they need to have something that makes them think about more than just themselves. 

You’re gonna take that selfish road, which is something I know all too well about.

You Can’t Stop the Sun from Shining, by Sonny Bill Williams with Alan Duff (Hachette, $49.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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