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Sonny Bill Williams to Quit N.Z. Rugby for Stint in Japan, NRL

Sonny Bill Williams will quit New Zealand rugby to play for a Japanese club before returning to Australia’s National Rugby League competition next year.

Williams, who scored four tries in seven games to help the All Blacks win last year’s World Cup, said today that he’ll join Ota-based Panasonic Wild Knights until January after finishing this year’s Super Rugby season with the Chiefs. He’ll then link up with an unnamed NRL club.

Williams, 26, played 17 Tests for the All Blacks at center or wing since walking out on the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL team in 2008 to play rugby union in France. He made his All Blacks debut two years later.

“It is a shame and disappointing that New Zealand rugby is losing him,” All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said in a statement. “He is an outstanding athlete who has stamped his mark on the game and hopefully this is not the last time we see him.”

The 6-foot-3, 238-pound Williams, who also boxes and currently holds the New Zealand Professional Boxing Association heavyweight title, said that he’d made a “handshake agreement” with an NRL club he wouldn’t identify, though hasn’t ruled out returning to New Zealand in the future. His contract with the Wild Knights also allows him to have a fight, he said today at a televised news conference in Hamilton.

Williams said he’d initially turned down an approach from the Japanese club, who then “came back with an offer I pretty much couldn’t refuse.” His contract is worth NZ$1.5 million ($1.2 million) for 12 matches, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Williams started his career as a professional sportsman in Australia’s NRL with the Bulldogs, helping the Sydney-based team win the Premiership in his rookie season in 2004.

‘Freakish Abilities’

The Auckland-born Williams switched to rugby union four years later to play for Toulon in France and returned to New Zealand in 2010, earning selection to the All Blacks squad at the end of that year even though he hadn’t yet played at Super Rugby level.

Williams’s “high-level skills and freakish abilities” helped his conversion to rugby’s 15-a-side version, Hansen said, adding that the development of his game understanding had turned him into a “world class” player.

He scored two tries for the All Blacks in last month’s 3-0 Test series sweep against Ireland and has helped the Chiefs to the top of the Super Rugby standings as they seek a first title in the southern hemisphere’s top provincial competition. Heading into last weekend’s matches, he had a tournament-leading 31 offloads, 10 more than any other player.

“He’s shown an ability to come up to an immense level in a quick time in a sport that he didn’t know anything about, and his family didn’t know much about,” Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith said in the news conference. “Wherever he goes, I think he’ll reach that peak too.”

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