How Toronto finally got their man … and a Tigers stalwart got lucky
In the entire annals of sporting testimonials, it’s doubtful anyone has enjoyed the blind luck that just befell 33-year-old Castleford Tigers stalwart Michael Shenton.
On January 19, the veteran of 368 Super League games will be afforded the honour when the Yorkshire club, representing a town of 40,000, plays a pre-season match at their home, the charmingly crumbling Mend-a-Hose Jungle.
Sonny Bill Williams could make his Wolfpack debut in a testimonial match.Credit:PA
Although the trans-Atlantic upstarts, as they say on the terraces of stadiums along the M62, “bring no away fans”, there was bound to be a bit of interest given they had been promoted to Super League after three years paying their way in the comparatively obscure lower divisions of British rugby league.
Then yesterday happened.
Toronto Wolfpack signed Sonny Bill Williams, perhaps the world’s most famous active rugby player, to a two-year contract worth an estimated CA$9 million ($9.92m). Working for the BBC on the Great Britain Lions tour of New Zealand, Wolfpack director of football Brian Noble says he immediately fielded media enquiries from – along with the usual locales – Saudi Arabia and China.
And now Michael Shenton’s mid-January Testimonial, a no-doubt cold, wet and slippery winter slugfest in England’s post-industrial north, will be the focus of global media attention and the wily centre may get enough from the gate to contemplate immediate retirement.
it will be up to the coach if Sonny plays
“To be fair, it will be up to the coach if Sonny plays,” Toronto’s head of UK business development Martin Vickers, who has negotiated with the cross-code star’s agent Khoder Nasser over a period of two years, told the Herald from Manchester.
“We obviously have a bit double header at what will probably be a full Headingley, to kick off the Super League proper on February 2.”
On the surface, there is little intrigue in the Wolfpack’s snaring of 34-year-old Williams. They wanted him and they paid him so much money he could not refuse, coming on board for the next two seasons with a share of the club and a possible Netfllx series.
But blow a bit of dust off the outsized headlines in today’s press and there is, indeed, a measure of intrigue.
Marwan Koukash tried to sign SBW for the Salford Reds back in 2013. Credit:AAP
Take the unwitting – as in, he still has no idea – role played by billionaire racehorse owner Marwan Koukash.
Vickers was working for the then-Koukash-owned Salford Reds when the Palestinian businessman tried to sign Williams in 2013.
William charmed Koukash’s family but didn’t sign. Vickers kept Nasser’s phone number.
While the rest of the Wolfpack organisation was swimming in nervousness and anticipation last month on the eve of their promotion final against Featherstone – a game they lost a year earlier to dent their hitherto inexorable rise – Vickers idly thumbed through his contacts and sent Nasser a text.
“And ’no’ started to become ‘maybe’,” said Noble, shaded by a sensible sun-hat in sweltering Christchurch.
The characters in this tale seem almost too fanciful for the likes of Netflix.
He's always been No.1 on our agenda.
A party-loving West Australian businessman with a mid-Pacific accent who seems to run on momentum more than any football team, a devoutly religious and generationally talented player who looks like a super athlete from central casting, a canny, quietly spoken former council worker in Vickers, an ex-Great Britain captain and English bobby in Noble and a stern, towering ex-Royal Marine in coach Brian McDermott.
No started to become maybe: Brian Noble explains how the Wolfpack wooed SBW.Credit:AP
No wonder Argyle’s sister, Rebecca, who holds things together in the UK, has “chief ringmaster” on her business card.
Williams has been a target since day one. “He is the only player in the world who can make the sort of seismic cut-through that has always been part of David’s ambition – the only one,” said Vickers.
Noble said: “The chief executive of Major League Soccer said the two biggest things in their success was getting a team in Toronto and getting David Beckham. He’s always been No.1 on our agenda.”
When speculation arose that SBW might be headed back to the Sydney Roosters in 2019, Vickers pulled out Nasser’s number again.
“We tried to get Sonny for our Super 8s run,” said Vickers.
Noble added: “The money was eye-watering.” But Williams wanted to play in the rugby union World Cup.
So Vickers kept talking to Nasser. They discussed “what a deal might look like”. “In the end, David sold him the dream,” Vickers said. “They were impressed with how innovative David was, with ownership and those sorts of things.”
The next step was for McDermott to fly out to Japan, where he met Williams after the All Blacks were eliminated by England.
“Sonny wanted to know what Brian’s playing philosophies were, he was very serious about that, they were pretty intense discussions,” says Vickers. “And, in the end, they hit it off.
“Sonny is coming to England a couple of days before his jersey presentation on Thursday. He is insistent that he wants to meet his teammates as early as possible. He is specifically building up his strength to play rugby league again. He is already training specifically for that because it’s very different.”
For so long suspicious of the Wolfpack and zealous about sharing their television money and audience, rival Super League clubs – along with everyone else – have been bowled over by Argyle’s coup. Simon Moran, the unassuming music impresario who owns Warrington Wolves, even wrote a public letter of thanks.
“Here’s the key thing,” says Vickers. “North America is a continent Sonny hasn’t been able to reach yet.
“We told him, ‘This isn’t the last two years of your career, this is the first two years of your career in North America’.”
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