What a strange thing it was that Sonny Bill Williams did. All the previous strange things in his career have been blamed on his manager but there was nobody in Sonny Bill’s ear when he decided to give his Rugby World Cup winner’s medal away.
It was his own spontaneous gesture to a lad who had run out to the All Blacks during their victory lap and had been tackled by a Twickenham security guard. The kid was not hurt and probably not surprised to be tackled. Williams and Steve Hansen picked him up, put an arm around him and Williams steered him back to the fence where on a parting impulse he gave the kid his medal.
A trifle excessive, I thought. Also a bit demeaning for the prize the All Blacks had just won, and I wondered what his teammates thought. I also hoped the boy’s parents would realise it was a needless gesture, probably made in a moment of excitement when the man was not thinking clearly, and one he would later regret.
I hoped they would later offer it back, which indeed they did, Williams has said. But he told them, “Nah, better he has it than it hang on my wall”. Was he modestly depreciating his generosity or did he really not want this thing?
I think it was a spontaneous gesture with the best of motivations. It was a realisation that to a young fan, the medal would have perhaps a lifetime of impact, which was greater than having it was to Sonny Bill.
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t value it, but that what he values more is the actual achievement of helping win the Rugby World Cup, rather than the medal that goes with it. The memories, the photos, the actual event are what mean the most to the players. The medal is a tangible record of it, but is not the end in itself.
He is not alone among top sportsmen is having little interest in keeping memorabilia – but it is fairly unusual to give it away a moment after it has been draped around their neck. Insulting too. His teammates might never say whether they found it insulting but as a fan, I did.
It felt like a betrayal of our enthusiasm for their achievement and the exquisite agony of those early mornings on the couch.
I don’t know whether I’m more disappointed in Williams or the many who see it as an utterly admirable act of generosity.
I’m one of those. I think it was a reflection of the All Black culture we now have about being role medals, and inspiring young people. There should be no expectation ever that any sportsperson should do what SBW did, but when it happens as it did, let’s just celebrate it in an uncomplicated way, rather than psychoanalyse it.
Most human beings get pleasure from giving other people pleasure. It can be as simple as that.