The National Rugby League’s Grand Final has long served as the closing act of a drama-filled season, but an anti-doping probe and the future of Sonny Bill Williams are set to dog Australia’s scandal-hit competition well into the off-season.
Sunday’s title-deciding showdown between the Sydney Roosters and cross-town rivals Manly has been almost completely overshadowed by speculation that dual code international Williams could be set for another abrupt career change, robbing the league of one of its few good news stories in 2013.
Former All Black Williams, who came back for a second stint in rugby league this year on the strength of a handshake agreement with Roosters chief Nick Politis, has been linked with a return to rugby union and Dave Rennie’s Chiefs in his native New Zealand next season.
Williams has stubbornly kept a vow of silence, however, keeping officials on both sides of the Tasman Sea on tenterhooks.
The bulky 28-year-old famously walked out on the NRL in 2008, tearing up a five-year contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs to play rugby union in France, a move regarded as treachery by Australia’s most parochial football league.
Five years on, all has been forgiven and the NRL is desperate to hold onto the enigmatic playmaker, whose barnstorming runs and outrageous offloads have helped arrest sliding television ratings and keep fans coming through the turnstiles.
“We’re pleased to have him in the game and we want to keep him in the game,” NRL boss Dave Smith told reporters at a league function this week.
“I’m doing everything I can to make that a reality but at the end of the day he’s a very talented young man who’s got choices. I hope he makes the choice to stick with us.”
The loss of Williams would be a painful sting-in-the-tail for a competition seemingly forever lurching from crisis to crisis.
A former British soldier and banker, Smith started the job of Australian sport’s toughest management position in February and within a week was defending the world’s richest rugby league competition against allegations of widespread doping released in a high-level government report.
The NRL provisionally suspended one player in August, Canberra Raiders winger Sandor Earl, for the “use and trafficking” of a banned peptide, but the final results of the national anti-doping agency’s probe may not be released for months, leaving queries over the fates of dozens of interviewed players and officials.
The NRL has also been hit by allegations of player violence towards women and howling referee blunders during the playoffs series that saw a number of officials stood down.
Williams’ retention would offer a rare bright spot for Smith in a turbulent first season in charge, but the player’s silence has already been interpreted as a farewell by Australian pundits.
“He has been exceptional. Everything he’s brought to rugby league that he said he would (and) the hype (that) he was going to bring back to rugby league, he has done 10-fold,” former Australia rugby league representative Matt Adamson told broadcaster Fox Sports.
“I have the gut feeling we are losing (him). It’ll be a crying shame to lose a man of his stature, what he’s given to the game.”