Sonny Bill Williams returned to rugby league after a five-year absence today with a mixed performance and a memorable promise: “The magic will come.”
The 34-year-old dual international’s much talked about debut for the sport’s most ambitious-ever expansion club, Toronto Wolfpack, wasn’t quite an anti-climax. But nor was it a glittering triumph as the Canadians were comprehensively outclassed 28-10 in the the first match of a Super League double-header at Leeds’ Headingley Stadium.
Williams was mobbed by fans after taking the back exit from the dressing rooms, telling reporters his 54-minute stint was more than half an hour longer than planned with coach Brian McDermott.
"Things will come, bro. The magic’ll come," he said.
"The coach only wanted me to play 20, 30 minutes max but it felt like I was getting the feel of it when I was out there.
"For me, I just prided myself on trying to do the little things well. Obviously it wasn’t magical."
Williams attracted jeers when he was ruled to have knocked on with his first touch in the 28th minute. “What a waste of money!” and “who are ya?” were the chants from the terraces. It was probably a harsh call on the part of speccies and referee James Child - Williams had been facing his own line at the time and the ball looked to have gone backwards.
McDermott observed "The west Yorkshire crowd, they get excited about a certain aspect of life, don’t they? A certain aspect of life, which is usually on the negative side.
"That’s part of the theatre, I suppose. It got the biggest cheer of the day, when he dropped the ball."
After that there were passes from Williams that went to ground and those which came off. There were some hits, some good runs, some rustiness and glimpses of brilliance.
It was 10-4 to Castleford, technically the away team today, when SBW was thrown into the fray. Toronto had looked enterprising; McDermott had not decided the promotion to Super League should result in conservatism.
But the top-tier experience of Castleford soon became decisive. Former Canterbury forward Grant Millington reached out to score and there were two more tries on the way to a commanding 22-4 halftime lead.
Taking only 23 players into an arduous eight-month season, the Wolfpack improved in the second half but the contest got scrappy and the crowd started to focus on the second game, between Leeds and Hull. The Wolfpack avoided a blow-out.
"It was obviously disappointing from a team point of view but from a personal point of view it was great to get back out there," Williams said.
"But the foundations were laid and I’ve got to keep working on that. It’s a long season, so... always humbling.
"As long as I do the little things well. Looking back, third man in, getting up fast, kick-chase, all that. That’s the foundations: the little things people don’t see. Pushing up, support play, that stuff."
McDermott utilised the post-match media conference to point out that because the Wolfpack are not entitled to certain allowances that British clubs receive, they actually have less money to spend that other teams in Super League.
'For me, I just prided myself on trying to do the little things well. Obviously it wasn’t magical'Sonny Bill Williams
The club is looking for salary cap concessions to add to their threadbare squad.
"We knew it was going to be a bit faster than what we’re used to," said McDermott. "Certainly the athletes have changed compared to what we’ve been doing for the last 12 months.
"We knew we were going to get rattled at some stage. We knew we were going to be a bit stressed an a bit all over the place. I think if we’re disappointed with anything, we got a bit too stressed and rattled a bit too much.
"We’re trying to pull 11 out of 10 triggers sometimes, throwing some unrealistic passes."