WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams has signed a three-year deal with New Zealand Rugby and will play for the Auckland-based Blues in the Super Rugby competition from next season.
Williams, who is currently playing for the New Zealand sevens team which will compete at the Olympics in August, announced his decision on Wednesday at a news conference where he was flanked by NZ Rugby chief executive Steve Tew and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
The midfielder, who has previously played Super Rugby for the Christchurch-based Crusaders and Hamilton-based Chiefs, quashed speculation he might return to Australia’s National Rugby League.
“For us to have retained an athlete of this ability with the options he has open to him is another confirmation of the attraction of the All Blacks jersey,” Tew said.
Williams has been a star in both rugby union and rugby league and his signature has been eagerly sought by teams in both.
He made his name in Australia’s NRL before quitting the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008 to join the French rugby union club Toulon. He was first signed by New Zealand Rugby in 2010 when he joined the Crusaders and was almost immediately selected for the national squad.
Williams was a member of the All Blacks team that won the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. In 2012 he moved to the Chiefs, who won that year’s Super Rugby title.
Williams quit New Zealand rugby to play briefly in Japan for the Panasonic Wild Knights before returning to the NRL for a two-season stint with the Sydney Roosters. He also played for the New Zealand team that reached the final of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup after which he was named the international player of the year.
Williams then returned to New Zealand rugby, winning selection in the All Blacks team which won the 2015 World Cup in England.
He made the decision to sit out this season’s Super Rugby competition to concentrate on qualifying for the New Zealand sevens team at Rio de Janiero, becoming the only senior All Black to do so.
Australian media reported Williams was considering a return to the NRL but in recent days it became clear he would re-commit to New Zealand rugby. The Blues, currently last in the five-team New Zealand conference, admitted they were seeking his signature.
Tew said Williams’ decision was a “significant and important (one) for our player retention.”
“We have an athlete beside us committing to us for another three years, another World Cup cycle,” Tew said. “I don’t have to speak about his pedigree. You will know what this young man has achieved already and we look forward to him achieving even greater things in the All Blacks jersey which he holds so special.”
Hansen described Williams as “a freakish player, one of the best in the world in his position.”
“He is an extraordinarily gifted athlete and thoroughly professional in everything he does,” he said.
New Zealand Rugby saw Williams’ retention as crucial after the World Cup-winning midfield pair of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu quit following last year’s final to play in France.
Hansen said Williams’ signing “will bring stability to the midfield and will allow us to build a world-class center combination.”
Williams said it was “humbling and flattering” to hear Hansen’s comments.
“But for myself it’s just about trying to get back into the All Blacks and to be the best player I can be,” he said. “I know being here is what I want to do. I’m loving it.
“I love winning and I love being involved with such a quality side.”