TORONTO • All Black Sonny Bill Williams has been put on a pedestal in North America with LeBron James and David Beckham, after confirming yesterday a return to rugby league with the Toronto Wolfpack in a US$9 million (S$12.2 million) deal that would be a record for either league or union.
Although the Rugby World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015 has been plagued by injury in recent years and is nearing the twilight of his career, the Canadian side believe the 34-year-old offers immense value as they prepare for their debut in the English Super League.
"The excitement he will bring to the sport of rugby league in this country will be incredible," chief executive Bob Hunter said of Williams, who has signed a two-year deal. "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 LA Galaxy."
The money, while a record for rugby, pales against the US$38 million James gets a year from the Los Angeles Lakers and Beckham was on US$6.5 million 12 years ago when he joined the LA Galaxy.
Wolfpack's commercial vice-president Jon Pallett told Radio Sport in New Zealand the deal was worth it.
He said: "There's certainly a huge value to us in terms of our fan base, and obviously the sponsorships and ticket sales that go with it."
It will be Williams' third stint in rugby league after ending his union career with a bronze medal in the recent World Cup in Japan.
"I just want to say that I'm not coming over for a holiday and I'm coming to do some work. God willing, we can have a successful season," he said in a message to Wolfpack fans.
"I'd also like to thank everyone involved in the All Blacks family. I never dreamt that I'd play in the black jersey for 10 years playing alongside some of the legends of the game, and I'm grateful."
He played 58 Tests for the All Blacks and also for the sevens team at the 2016 Olympics. He is a former New Zealand rugby league international and also New Zealand boxing champion.
He came to prominence playing for the Canterbury Bulldogs in the Australian National Rugby League before switching to union in 2010.
He returned to the NRL in 2013 to join the Sydney Roosters and also played in the side who lost in the Rugby League World Cup final to Australia that year before returning to union for a second term.