When Sonny Bill Williams handed over his World Cup winner’s medal to a young fan after he was tackled by an over-exuberant security guard it captured the heart of the rugby world and summed up the All Black’s capacity for independent thought.
With thousands of adoring supporters screaming his name from the Twickenham stands after his side’s Webb Ellis trophy triumph over Australia in 2015, few professional sportsman would have had the wherewithal or humanity to take time out to not only check on the star-struck lad’s well-being, but also to gift him the cherished medal.
The video went viral and Williams was lauded not only for his supreme ability as a rugby player but also his sensitivity and humility where others would have turned a blind eye.
The hulking figure of All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams will take some stopping
The cynics saw it as an opportunistic piece of brand building, others as an entirely innocent and instinctive act which perfectly illustrates the multi-talented sportsman’s ability to see the bigger picture.
A devout Muslim in a sport established and formalized by the muscular Christian movement of post-industrial Britain, Sonny Bill is no-one’s idea of a conformist. Time and time again down the years, the man has refused to be pigeon-holed.
There is perhaps no man on earth who can lay claim to have succeeded in such a breadth of different sports. Two World Cup triumphs with the All Blacks, a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs, NRL titles with Sydney in rugby league, the WBA International heavyweight boxing title in 2013 as well as an Olympic Sevens appearance are all in the locker.
At the age of 31, who knows what else there is out there for this remarkable individual to achieve.
And, amid the sometimes chaotic and tempting world of professional sport, Williams has retained his faith and maintained the discipline required to adhere to Islam.
Williams has been one of the world’s best players in both rugby union and rugby league
He will take the field for the Auckland Blues against the British and Irish Lions on Wednesday in the midst of the holy festival of Ramadan which requires Muslims to fast during daylight hours.
If the Lions thought jet lag made preparation tough before their underwhelming opening performance against the New Zealand Barbarians, imagine preparing for a top-flight game of professional rugby without taking on board any calories during daytime hours.
Williams, typically, makes light of it.
‘I’m just lucky it gets dark early in this part of the world so I only have to fast for 10 hours a day,’ he says, in typically self-effacing fashion.
But while he is atypical off the field, it is his unique ability as an athlete and a footballer which has brought him so much success in so many sports down the years.
He won praise for rescuing a young pitch invader from security at the 2015 World Cup final
Williams even gave away his winner’s medal to the delight of the young supporter
Few men, if any, on the planet possess the combined attributes of explosive power, outright brute strength and supreme hand-eye co-ordination which have enabled Williams to thrive everywhere from a rugby union field to a boxing ring.
He is a sportsman extraordinaire.
In rugby union terms, he has had no equal as an inside centre over the past decade. He combines the footballing ability of Australia’s Matt Giteau with the teak-tough directness of Wales’ Jamie Roberts with an unparalleled ability to off-load out of a tackle, bringing support runners in off his shoulders to splice open even the very best defences.
No player in the history of professional rugby, Jonah Lomu included, has been able to combine the level of physicality Sonny Bill brings with the soft, subtle footballing touches which has at times elevated the All Blacks game to a higher plane.
Given a unique exemption by the New Zealand Rugby Union not to wear certain sponsor’s logos – due to a moral objection to marketing alcohol, gambling companies or banks – Williams is own man on and off the field.
Williams is central to the All Blacks marketing campaign and is now their main man
A committed Muslim, he will take on the Lions despite fasting as part of Ramadan
The inside centre will play for the Auckland Blues against the Lions on Wednesday
Despite being one of the most feared athletes on the planet, Williams has had to play second fiddle at inside centre to Ma’a Nonu for much of his All Blacks career, being preferred as an impact player off the bench.
Now the great Nonu has retired, this is Sonny Bill’s time. He is central to the marketing campaign around this Lions tour and will get his first taste playing for the Blues on Wednesday.
In Auckland, the 6ft 5in, 17-stone centre will bring his own unique brand of rugby union to the world’s attention once again.
Enjoy every moment. Who knows what his next step could be. Whatever it is, you suspect there could be a few more viral Youtube hits still to come.
This post originally appeared on DailyMail, written by Sam Peters