Why the Biggest Signing in Toronto Sports History Probably Won’t Happen
The rumours have been circulating ever since Toronto Wolfpack owner David Argyle mentioned that the club was targeting a “top 5 rugby union player” at a Wolfpack fan event. Minds immediately jumped to current Blues and All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams. Although it’s debatable whether Williams is a “top 5” player in the world, he seemed like the most likely option. Williams has played rugby league previously and his current contract with New Zealand Rugby Union is set to end in 2019. With that knowledge, fan speculation grew and grew. Finally, Argyle confirmed to Fox Sports Australia’s George Clarke that Williams is, in fact, the player that the Wolfpack are targeting for the 2020 season. However, despite Argyle’s confirmation, the Toronto Wolfpack signing Sonny Bill Williams still seems very unlikely to me.
If it does happen, Sonny Bill Williams signing with the Toronto Wolfpack will be one of the biggest signings in the history of professional sports. It would certainly be the biggest signing in the history of Toronto sports. John Tavares signing with the Maple Leafs last summer was massive and he has been a key part in the team’s success this year, but the global impact of Williams signing will dwarf the Tavares signing. Williams is not only one of the best rugby players on the planet (regardless of code), he is one of the best pure athletes in history. Williams is up there with guys like Bo Jackson and LeBron James as far as pure athletic ability is concerned. Even if you take away Williams rugby accolades he is still an undefeated professional boxer (7-0-0). At one time Williams held the NZPBA Heavyweight Championship and the WBA International Heavyweight Championship, two titles he vacated in order to pursue his rugby goals.
On the rugby pitch, Williams has found success in every code. In rugby union, Williams is a two time Rugby World Cup Champion. He helped the All Blacks become the first team to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups in 2011 and 2015. Williams and the All Blacks will look to make it a 3-peat as the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan later this year. In 2012 Williams led the Chiefs to their first Super Rugby Championship. Williams had a massive game in the final. He had the linebreak that led to Tim Nanai-Williams opening try, made a huge tackle that forced a knock-on that Lelia Masaga scooped up for the Chiefs third try, and finally, Williams added a try of his own to cap off the Chiefs 37-6 win over the Sharks. Williams has also tried his hand at Sevens a number of times. He helped All Blacks Sevens win 2 tournaments in 2016. Unfortunately, an ankle injury kept him out of the Olympics.
In rugby league, Williams has scored 42 tries in 118 NRL games split between the Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters. Williams has won 2 NRL Championships, first with Canterbury in 2004 and then with Sydney in 2013. Also in 2013, Williams attempted to become the first player to win a Rugby World Cup and a Rugby League World Cup. Williams led the New Zealand Kiwis to final, where they met the Australia Kangaroos. Australia proved to be too much for the Kiwis as they lost 34-2. Ultimately, between his outstanding play and leading both the Roosters to an NRL Championship and the Kiwis to the Rugby League World Cup Final, Sonny Bill Williams was awarded the Rugby League International Federation International Player of the Year award.
Sonny Bill Williams is an incredibly talented rugby player, but he is known for one skill specifically. Williams is easily the best in the world at offloads. Williams’ ability to get the ball away while he is being tackled is unmatched by anyone in either code. Every game he plays you will have a moment where you are left to wonder how it was physically possible for him to make that pass. Williams’ play style is characterized by that creativity with offloads, powerful runs, incredible vision, and monster tackles. Sometimes it can be difficult to describe. It is easier if you just watch for yourself.
Alright, now that I’m done gushing over how amazing a player Sonny Bill Williams is, let’s discuss the possibility of him joining the Wolfpack. Unfortunately, as much as I would absolutely love to see Williams in a Wolfpack jersey, I just don’t see it happening. Let’s get one thing out of the way first. In order for this to happen, the Wolfpack have to earn promotion to Super League for the 2020 season. There is no way a player of Sonny Bill Williams’ caliber will be playing in tier 2 anywhere in the world. The Wolfpack are clearly the best team in Championship this year. However, the final still comes down to just one game and in one game anything can happen. The Wolfpack lost the £1million Game last year, they aren’t invincible. If they want Williams on their squad, they need to make sure they get to Super League. If not, there is no chance he signs.
Currently, Sonny Bill Williams makes $990,000 (New Zealand dollar) a year to play for the Blues and All Blacks. In order to lure him away from New Zealand Argyle is reportedly offering Williams a 1-year $5million NZD contract to come to the Wolfpack. That dollar value is absolutely monumental. Not only is it over 5 times bigger than Williams’ current salary, but when you compare it to the Super League salary cap, it seems insane. $5million NZD works out to roughly $4.5million CAD and £2.6million GBP. The current salary cap in Super League is £2million. Ultimately, Argyle is offering Williams £600,000 more than the salary cap. Although, just because the offer is higher than the cap the RFL has rules in place to encourage this type of signing.
According to the RFL Operational Rules Financial Appendix, Williams would be classified as a returning talent pool player. Article 5.13 of Super League Salary Regulations (located on page 290) defines a returning talent pool player as a player that “has not played Rugby League at any age group or level...in the 5 years prior to the proposed signing.” Williams’ last rugby league game was with the Sydney Roosters in 2014, therefore he qualifies for this rule. The rule is in place to incentivize all RFL clubs to recruit talent from outside the traditional talent pools. The big incentive is that only 50% of a returning player’s salary will be on the cap in the first year of their contract. The second year, only 25% is taken off the cap hit. However, with the Wolfpack utilizing this rule, Williams’ cap hit would still come in at £1.3million. With the salary cap going up to £2.1million in 2020, this would leave Argyle and GM Brian Noble just £800,000 to sign 24 players. I feel like this would result in a lot of quality Wolfpack players being forced to find transfers.
Another interesting rule from the Financial Appendix is Article 5.14 “Marquee Player Dispensation”. Each team can have 2 marquee players. These players can be paid by the club however much the club is willing to pay them, however, their cap hit will remain low. A marquee player who is club trained will have a cap hit of £75,000. A player who was not club trained will have a cap hit of £150,000. Currently, Darcy Lussick and Ricky Leutele are the Wolfpack’s 2 marquee players. Neither is club trained so they take on the £150,000 cap hit. Lussick is in the second year of a 3 year contract and Leutele is in his first of 2 years. Ultimately this means that both of them will be on the Toronto Wolfpack next season. Therefore, the Wolfpack would have £1.6million tied up in Lussick, Leutele, and Williams. That leaves just £500,000 for Liam Kay, Gaz O’Brien, Blake Wallace, Jon Wilkin, Joe Mellor, Josh McCrone, Andy Ackers and the other 15 players that the Wolfpack would need to get under the cap. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea how Argyle and Noble can make a £2.6million contract work.
However, even if Argyle and Noble can find a way to make it work (after all they know the salary cap rules better than I do), there is no guarantee that Sonny Bill Williams would even want to come. Now that I think about it, the fact Williams might not want to come is probably why the dollar amount is so high. Throughout his career, Williams hasn’t really chased big money contracts. Most notably was when his stint with French Top 14 club Toulon came to an end in 2010. Toulon was Williams first foray into professional rugby union and although he had proven his rugby league skills in the NRL, he was still an unproven union player. His time with Toulon changed all of that. Toulon offered Williams a 3-year $6million NZD contract ($2million per year). That contract would have made Williams the highest paid rugby player in the world (either code). He turned it down. Instead, Williams took a $500,000 NZD per year contract with the NZRU and began playing for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup. He did it for a chance to play for the All Blacks. Even 9 years later, Williams salary still doesn't match the $2million NZD per year offer that Toulon gave him in 2010. In 2013 when Williams returned to rugby league in order to honour a handshake agreement with Rooster owner Nick Politis in, he was one of the lowest paid players on the team. Williams honoured the agreement but was signed after the majority of the Roosters squad heading into that season. There was only so much money left when he signed so he took what was available. Today Williams makes $990,000 NZD playing for the Blues in his hometown of Auckland and the All Blacks. Once again Williams turned down big money offers and chose the Blues because Auckland is home. At the press conference to announce Williams’ signing Williams kept talking about his family, and the city of Auckland being his home. He has turned down huge offers to stay in Auckland before, who is to say that Argyle can change his mind?
Ultimately, between the incredibly high dollar value on the offer and the possibility that Sonny Bill Williams wouldn’t even accept it anyways, I find it hard to believe that Argyle and the Wolfpack would be able to sign Williams. However, I suppose you can never say never. Sonny Bill Williams is one of the best rugby players in the world and Wolfpack fans have every reason to get excited about the possibility of him signing in Toronto. I just wouldn’t get my hopes up.