How Sonny Bill Wil­liams is qui­etly work­ing to help heal the ter­ri­ble wounds of a coun­try hit by tragedy

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - GRAND FINAL - JESSICAHAL­LORAN

SONNY Bill Wil­liams says his “wild­ness” has not dis­ap­peared. In­stead, that en­ergy has been di­rected to­wards Is­lam and, in turn, the All Black says he has learnt to look out­side of him­self. Wil­liams, play­ing in his third and most likely last World Cup, is a self-de­scribed “shy” char­ac­ter but has man­aged to fight past that to be­come a pillar of not only his com­mu­nity but his coun­try.

The hard-drink­ing, scan­dal-court­ing side is well and truly gone. Wil­liams, soon to be a dad of four, qui­etly and pow­er­fully has helped unify his coun­try in wake of hor­rific tragedy.

Five months ago, in a time of hor­ror and sad­ness af­ter the mass shoot­ing at New Zealand’s Al Noor mosque , a place he has of­ten wor­shipped in, when peo­ple needed him most. Such is the mag­ni­tude of his ac­tions, Wil­liams has be­come the sub­ject of a HBO Real Sports episode, which screened this week in Amer­ica. In that pro­gram Wil­liams openly re­flected for the first time on head­ing di­rectly to Christchur­ch af­ter a mas­sacre that killed 51 peo­ple, mostly Mus­lim im­mi­grants.

“That was my time and I needed to step up,” Wil­liams told Real Sports. “I know I rep­re­sent the All Blacks, I know I rep­re­sent a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, be­ing a Mus­lim, be­ing a Kiwi. We were all hurt­ing. I had to get to Christchur­ch.” In a land­scape when many sports stars lend their name to “a cause” and then drift away a from it when the cam­eras are off, Wil­liams Will has con­tin­ued that work with lit­tle l fan­fare.

Last L month the me­dia-ret­i­cent 34year-old ye al­lowed Real Sports re­porter re David Scott, an Emmy Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and pro­ducer, to spend days with him in Auck­land and time at the Al Noor N mosque in Christchur­ch.

Scott tells this col­umn that m mo­ments that didn’t make the fi­nal cut of the pro­gram, or hap­pened whe when the cam­eras weren’t rolling, were ti times that in­cluded Wil­liams fly­ing up memb mem­bers of the Al Noor mosque, in­clud­ing t the Ibrahim fam­ily who lost three­year-old Mu­cad in the mas­sacre, to be at the Bledis­loe game in Auck­land.

“He’s not look­ing for pub­lic­ity or credit for those things, it’s just who he is,” Scott said. “You have to ad­mire the guy, what­ever he has been through in the past, he’s found a way to gen­uinely con­trib­ute. He’s the real thing. He has an au­then­tic­ity.”

Scott saw it on a small scale, when af­ter play­ing in the driv­ing rain and cold in Auck­land last month, Wil­liams was the last All Black out on the ground sign­ing au­to­graphs an hour af­ter the game.

“He’s the guy, who will lit­er­ally tell no one ‘no’,” Scott said. “He looks for op­por­tu­ni­ties for big and small to put his im­print on the coun­try or a child fan who will re­mem­ber it for a long time. It’s hard to hide true au­then­tic­ity.”

Five months on from the tragedy, the HBO pro­gram also cap­tures Wil­liams pray­ing in the very room where so many wor­ship­pers were gunned down. A room he used to of­ten pray in when he played for the Can­ter­bury Cru­saders. He breaks bread with fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing the Ibrahims, that have lost loved ones. He sits in a park op­po­site a mosque, he meets with young men still trau­ma­tised by the events. He sits on the grass with them, and ad­vises teens and kids about not feel­ing shame about their re­li­gion.

“To be proud to be a Mus­lim I know it is eas­ier said than done, in some in­stances and sit­u­a­tions ... I’ve been there,” he tells them. “It’s go­ing to be eas­ier, with hard­ship comes ease.”

He also reg­u­larly helps out in a kids’ ward at an Auck­land hos­pi­tal.

It’s well known that Wil­liams wasn’t al­ways des­tined for ex­cel­lence off the field. There were a string of drunken off-field in­dis­cre­tions and the most con­tro­ver­sial exit in NRL his­tory. That was fol­lowed by a French rugby stint and Euro­pean tour with the All Blacks. He then dis­cov­ered re­li­gion then he started be­com­ing more in­tro­spec­tive. In a 2011 in­ter­view, Wil­liams said; ‘’I think I’m evolv­ing, I’m al­ways in search of bet­ter­ing my­self, how I can im­prove as a sportsman and as a per­son.”

While he’s won NRL pre­mier­ships with Bull­dogs and the Roost­ers, played for the All Blacks and went to the Rio Olympics to rep­re­sent in the Rugby Sev­ens – he’s well and truly “bet­tered” him­self as a per­son.

Wil­liams’ self-de­scribed “wild­ness” — has be­come his great­est strength. “I’ve got a wild­ness in me, I found that Is­lam didn’t pacify the wild streak in me, I turned it and pointed it to want to grow and be bet­ter,” he told Real Sports. “That’s when I started openly com­ing out with my pos­i­tive mes­sages, who I was and what I stood for.”

Wil­liams rose up

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