TORONTO (Reuters) - New Zealand center and twice World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams has agreed to join the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league team ahead of their debut in England’s top-tier Super League next year, the Canadian side said on Thursday.
The move marks a fourth code switch for 34-year-old Williams, who will be formally introduced next Thursday in a news conference at the Emirates Stadium in London, the home of Premier League soccer team Arsenal.
The terms of the deal for Williams, who is of Samoan descent, were not disclosed but media reports said he had accepted a two-year, $10 million offer, which would make it the largest contract in the league’s history.
The signing is being compared to England soccer international David Beckham joining the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, putting a global spotlight on Major League Soccer and raising the sport’s profile in North America.
Williams, who won bronze at the Rugby World Cup last week after the All Blacks fell to England in the semi-finals, brings plenty of star power to a transatlantic team who started in the third tier of English rugby league in 2017.
Williams, who lifted the World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011 and 2015, won the National Rugby League Premiership in 2004 with the Bulldogs and in 2013 with the Sydney Roosters.
“Toronto Wolfpack has established themselves as a multicultural and economic powerhouse, not only in the city but across the world,” said Williams in a statement released by the Wolfpack. “The club has big ambitions and big goals.
“I want to be part of all this and do all I can to help reach those lofty goals.”
Williams will be expected to help the Wolfpack win trophies but he will also be counted on to bring in new fans and grow the sport not only in Toronto but across the county by turning the club into a Canadian brand in much the same way that the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and MLB’s Blue Jays have done.
“The excitement he will bring to the sport of rugby league in this country will be incredible,” said Wolfpack chairman and CEO Robert Hunter. “Having someone of his talent join the Wolfpack will greatly raise the profile of the club, and also help move the game forward globally.
“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.”
Toronto kick off their the 2020 season against Castleford Tigers at England’s Headingley Stadium on Feb. 2.
The Wolfpack’s majority owner, Australian mining tycoon David Argyle, said in February that the club was interested in Williams and had even reached out to his agent in 2018.
“We have signed one of the highest-profile rugby players, if not sports stars in the world,” said Wolfpack head coach Brian McDermott. “He will enhance the global game of rugby by being in Toronto and certainly push the brand of the Wolfpack onto another level.
“The main point of excitement for our club is that we are signing a great Rugby League player who has the hunger to be successful in Super League much as he was in the NRL and Rugby Union.”
Williams was part of the New Zealand sevens team that lost in the quarter-finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
A former professional boxer who won all seven of his bouts, Williams was stripped of his belts in 2013 after failing to defend his international and New Zealand heavyweight titles.
Writing by Steve Keating; Editing by Ken Ferris and Christian Radnedge