Sonny Bill draws interest from NRL clubs in light of Wolfpack sitting out season

TORONTO — NRL teams have wasted little time eyeing Wolfpack star Sonny Bill Williams in the wake of Toronto's announcement it will sit out the remainder of the 2020 Super League season.

Cameron George, CEO of the New Zealand Warriors, says his club plans to speak to the former All Black about a short-term deal in the National Rugby League, which features the Warriors and 15 Australian teams.

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"The stars would have to be aligned, and I don't know if and when Sonny could even get to Australia. But we'd be mad not to ask the question," George was quoted on the NRL's website.

The St. George Illawarra Dragons and Williams former teams — the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters — are also reportedly interested.

Given Toronto's decision to step down in 2020, Wolfpack players can deal directly with other teams and strike whatever deal they can. If they choose to stay, the Wolfpack will keep paying them, according to the club.

The 34-year-old Williams, a star in both rugby union and rugby league, is one of seven imports on the Wolfpack roster whose playing future was already in doubt prior to Toronto's announcement Monday. Their visas were to expire at the end of the month.

The visas allow for them to spend six months of the year in England, which is not normally a problem when the Wolfpack spend part of the season in Canada. But the pandemic kept them in England, eating up their allotted time.

The other imports affected are Australia's Josh McCrone, Darcy Lussick and Blake Wallace, Australian-born Samoan international Ricky Leutele and New Zealand's Chase Stanley and Bodene Thompson.

Leutele won an NRL championship with the Cronulla Sharks while McCrone, the Wolfpack captain, played for the Canberra Raiders and St. George Illawarra.

Lussick had stints with the Manly Sea Eagles and Parramatta Eels while Stanley played for the Dragons, Bulldogs and Melbourne Storm. Thompson spent time with the Gold Coast Titans, Wests Tigers and New Zealand Warriors.

Any player heading to Australia would have to fulfil a 14-day quarantine before playing.

Toronto cited the global pandemic for closing up shop this season, saying it had presented "unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges."

Majority owner David Argyle says the team's ownership group has poured $30 million into the transatlantic franchise. The team debuted in 2017, working its way up to the top-tier Super League from the third-tier League 1.

Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone said the Wolfpack knew what they had signed up for.

"They joined the competition on a pre-existing financial arrangement which they were very much aware of," Elstone told Sky TV. "It dates back to when they were first admitted into the RFL's competitions (the second-tier Championship and third-tier League 1).

"So they were aware of the financial challenges. Clearly the COVID crisis has exacerbated that," he added. "They were looking at playing every game away from home. They were having challenges around players. There were some severe logistical and operational challenges around the club. So it became very very difficult for them."

Elstone said Super League is looking at "potential sanctions" for Toronto for withdrawing from the season, which is slated to resume Aug. 2. The league suspended play March 15 due to the pandemic.

Toronto has said it wants to field a team in 2021 but will have to await word from rugby league authorities whether it is welcome — and if so in which division.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2020.

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