Where the latest incarnation of Sonny Bill Williams fits into the modern NRL pack

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First he shook the Knights, then Sonny Bill Williams played down his contribution by dropping a metaphor in a blender.

“It’s a privilege to come back into a team that’s a well-oiled machine,” he told Fox Sports after the match last week.

“And just try to add my little two cents on top.”

Like putting the final cherry icing on a gravy train, the Roosters hope Williams will propel them to a third successive title.

That campaign was on the ropes when Victor Radley — their ball-playing bombardier — went down injured in June.

But in Williams’ 33 minutes against the Knights he delivered tackle-busting runs, offloads, assured passes and staunch defence.

Formerly a second-rower, the Kiwi code-jumper spent years in the centres in rugby union.

As the finals loom he has become the X-factor for one of the title favourites.

So, in rugby league circa 2020, just what type of player is this new incarnation of Williams?

Forward defining

Historically, the make-up of a rugby league forward pack was simple.

In attack, props were typically metre-eaters and hookers played dummy half.

Edge running and backline touches were left to others.

While workhorses like Wayne Pearce and Brad Clyde roamed the back row in the ’80s and ’90s, it was the ball-wielding value of the number 13 that drew even elite playmakers like Wally Lewis and Brad Fittler to the position.


Those days lock forwards were ironically the lockpickers of a defensive line.

Think Brad Mackay, a silky back with brawn. Or Jim Dymock, as wily as a half.

But in the past two decades, headline players have threatened these traditions.

Front-line enforcers like Sam Burgess, Paul Gallen and Jason Taumalolo turn the lock position into a third prop.

Meanwhile, ball-playing props like James Graham and Junior Paulo have been fulcrums for their sides.

James Graham and Sam Burgess
James Graham at the Bulldogs and Sam Burgess of the Rabbitohs were dominant forwards of the past decade.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

A 2020 pack

Comparing how often players pass, gain metres and tackle based on each minute they are on the field provides a snapshot of what forwards do in 2020. (Larger markers have greater tackle loads).

Hookers and halves are obviously more likely to pass, and outside backs are rarely required to tackle.

Locks — relying on classifications from NRL.com — uphold the tradition as the ball-players of the pack … to an extent. They are generally on the “right” of props and second-rowers.

But there are some outliers.

Taumalolo confirms his reputation as essentially an elite yard-earning prop and Jake Trbojevic is as close as a forward will get to being a half.

There are hookers that have played elsewhere in the pack sitting in the middle of the chart like Brandon Smith at the Storm and Siliva Havili at the Raiders.

Then there’s Radley at the Roosters … more “up” and “right” than anyone.

A Sydney Roosters NRL player lies on the ground as he receives treatment on a knee injury against St George Illawarra.
Victor Radley of the Roosters sustained a knee injury against the Dragons in June.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Boo Radley

Roosters coach Trent Robinson once declared Radley could be one of the top five hookers in the game if set his mind to it.

Much of his first grade initiation came in relief of established number 9 Jake Friend and NRL.com stills classifies him as a hooker.

But the Clovelly junior has stepped away from dummy half, spending no significant time there in the first seven rounds.

And Robinson is on the record as saying Radley is “a world-class lock”.

His progress and unique contribution made his season-ending knee injury another tragedy of 2020.

Perhaps an echo of Radley now lurks at Bondi though.

Williams’ metre and pass per minute contributions so far mimic Radley’s.

And the eye test draws a similar conclusion.

Will he or won’t he

Coach Trent Robinson indicated on the weekend that even he was still making his mind up about the deployment of Williams.

Against the Knights the former All Black had a stint on either side of half-time, as well as a late cameo.

“I thought the balance of his game was really good,” Robinson said after the game.

“He got his defensive work done, he moved well, retreated well.

“And then variation in play, hard carries, offload, combination plays with other forwards, combination with halves.”

But there are times his ball-playing skills will take a back seat.

In Williams’ late stint, which Robinson described as a “bit of an experiment”, nary an edge was seen.

Instead, the 35-year-old was a ram let loose inside.

It might be a “little two cents” for Williams. But he means major change for the Roosters, and their rivals.

Sonny Bill Williams and the Roosters play the Cronulla Sharks on Saturday evening at 7.30pm.


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