The Toronto Wolfpack proved doubters wrong by managing to establish a toehold for a little-known sport in North America.
Now the transatlantic rugby league team is opening the vault in the hope that All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams will put it on the worldwide map as the Wolfpack prepare for their step up into England’s top-tier Super League come February.
The Wolfpack confirmed Thursday that the 34-year-old Williams, a star in both of rugby’s codes, has signed a two-year contract. The deal is worth a total of $9 million, with Williams getting an ownership stake, according to a source granted anonymity because they were not in a position to publicly divulge the information.
“Having someone of his talent join the Wolfpack will greatly raise the profile of the club, and also help move the game forward globally,” Bob Hunter, the Wolfpack chairman, and CEO said in a statement.
“Sonny is a phenomenal athlete and we believe he is rugby’s LeBron James and his addition to our league is comparable to when David Beckham joined L.A. Galaxy.”
The Wolfpack may not be finished yet.
England’s Daily Telegraph reports Toronto is also interested in Manu Tuilagi, a Mack Truck of a centre who currently plays for Leicester and England.
Williams has won championships in both rugby union and league and has real star power in the sport around the globe. Williams has competed at three Rugby World Cups –winning two — and was part of the New Zealand rugby sevens team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, partially rupturing an Achilles tendon in the All Blacks’ first match.
“Toronto Wolfpack is a club that represents Toronto which is a very multicultural city,” Williams said in a club statement. “The club has big ambitions and big goals. I want to be part of all this and do all I can to help reach those lofty goals.
“On the field, I’d like to bring high-quality play and do all I can for the betterment of the team. Off the field, I’d like to use my experience to mentor the young players and be helpful where I am needed. Super League will be a new challenge and one I’m looking forward to. It will be a new experience and one I’m ready to embrace.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 7, 2019
The Wolfpack may not be finished yet.
Williams, whose resume also includes an unbeaten stint as a heavyweight pro boxer, is fresh off the All Blacks’ third-place finish at the World Cup in Japan.
He has won two rugby league championships in Australia’s NRL.
At six foot three and some 238 pounds, Williams is a powerful runner who has an uncanny to offload the ball to a teammate even when getting gang-tackled. He can also be a bruising defender.
“We have signed one of the highest-profile rugby players, if not sports stars in the world and he will enhance the world of rugby in Toronto and certainly push the brand of the Wolfpack onto another level,” said Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott.
“The main point of excitement for our club is that we are signing a great rugby league player who has the hunger to be successful in Super League much as he was in the (Australia’s) NRL and rugby union.”
Like Major League Soccer, the English rugby league has a salary cap with a partial exemption for marquee players. In rugby league, the salary cap was two million pounds (C$3.38 million) in 2019. Teams can have two marquee players with each of their salary cap hits restricted to 150,000 pounds (C$253,400).
Toronto’s marquee players in 2019 were Australian forward Darcy Lussick and Samoan international back Ricky Leutele.
Williams made his All Blacks debut in November 2010 against England and has won 58 caps (including 16 off the bench). His record in the famed black jersey is 52-5-1 with the only losses coming against South Africa (in 2011), Australia (2015 and ’17), the British and Irish Lions (2017) and England (at the recent World Cup).
Ten of his 65 career points came at the World Cup against Canada. with a try in New Zealand’s 79-15 win in 2011 and another in the 63-0 victory in Oita on Oct. 2
The Wolfpack started life in the third tier of English rugby league in 2017, winning promotion to the second-tier Betfred Championship in its first season. It won promotion to the Super League in October with a 24-6 win over Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game.