In my time I’ve written columns about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian, and although columnists should never say never, I don’t expect to revisit those subjects. Sonny Bill Williams is another matter; he defies your determination to ignore him. As Joe Louis, world heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, used to tell opponents: “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
The Williams phenomenon raises various questions starting with this: does his star quality draw the media like moths to a flame, or does he knowingly and with forethought generate publicity in order to enhance his brand?
It’s safe to say that his manager, Khoder Nasser – often portrayed as a sporting version of Colonel Tom Parker, the Svengali who dictated Elvis Presley’s every career move – goes to some lengths to ensure the media is seldom a Sonny Bill-free zone.
That said, one assumes Nasser didn’t coerce or manipulate Williams into his short-lived but highly visible summer romance with model Jaime Ridge, daughter of former league and rugby player Matthew and professional celebrity Sally, herself someone whose very occasional absences from the Sunday newspaper social pages prompt an incredulous double take. It may have been love at first sight, but if you’d really rather fly under the gossipmongers’ radar, Jaime would be the last girl you’d hook up with.
Although the media are fascinated by SBW and a section of the public is starstruck by him, there doesn’t seem to be much of an emotional connection. That may be because Williams is perceived as someone who sets himself apart: there was speculation that his departure from the Crusaders, an environment in which a high value is placed on team players, wasn’t a huge wrench for either party.
Or perhaps it’s because he’s too, well, perfect: good looking, marketable, multitalented, ferociously disciplined, highly professional. We like to see our sports stars sweat and sometimes stumble, as opposed to always having it their own way; we prefer human beings to machines. And if they have a few warts and a touch of Jack the Lad, they’re well on the way to becoming folk heroes. But folk heroes have to be heroic from time to time. If they don’t produce the goods, the foibles that made them appealing in the first place can quickly be reclassified as fatal flaws.
Piri Weepu achieved folk hero status after steering the All Blacks through a tricky World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Within days, inboxes up and down the country were clogged with such gags as, “There’s no such thing as global warming; Piri Weepu was cold so he turned the sun up”, and “Piri Weepu makes onions cry”.
After his summer break, Weepu reported for work in less-than-racing condition. If, despite that, he had been a matchwinner, it would only have added to the legend. But Weepu hasn’t won matches, and as the critics sift through the train wreck that is the Blues’ campaign, some are asking why he couldn’t or wouldn’t do what New Zealand’s 150-odd other Super rugby players did: present himself in decent physical shape.
The combination of Jesse Ryder’s immense talent, runs on the board and kid-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks narrative positioned him for folk hero status, but lately he has waned rather than waxed, as has public goodwill.
There are also ominous signs that Ryder’s team-mates are starting to feel they’ve been conned, that their indulgence of his waywardness and protectiveness when he’s got himself in the crap has only strengthened his inclination to go his own way, even if that’s off the rails.
Wanting sports stars to be likeable rogues who perform like dedicated athletes is wanting to have your cake and eat it too. That’s hard enough in any walk of life; in professional sport, as Weepu and Ryder are discovering, it’s nigh on impossible.