ANDREW JOHNS – NINEMSN COLUMN

NRL needs to retain superstars

Sonny Bill Williams is a once in a hundred year player, with such immense talent that he deserves to be treated differently. If he does decide to play rugby league again next year, it will be great for whichever club signs him and even better for NRL. The fact that he might return to rugby union in time for the 2015 World Cup is where Williams demands a different approach to most players.

If Sonny Bill Williams wants to box in the off season, if he wants to help defend the All Blacks’ crown in 2015, if he wants to give AFL a try, I say let him. We should enjoy the fact that he wants to play rugby league now and he might return to the game in the future. He was incredible the other night at five-eighth against Manly, but you could put him in any number and he’d be a star.

Not many athletes are capable of playing more than one sport, let alone mastering them. Williams isn’t being paid top dollar to play league and union for nothing. Having him in any team guarantees thousands of extra bums on seats, as well as lifting the profile and recruitment ability of that club.

Israel Folau is in the same boat. If he was pulling on a Parramatta jersey right now, not only would they be performing better, but they’d be recruiting a much better line-up for the future. Players want to play with the superstars of the game. Folau was looking to return to our game, before rugby union snapped him up, and whatever went wrong has become a complete embarrassment to the code.

The NRL forks our millions of dollars every year on flash marketing campaigns, but no one goes to the game because they saw Jessica Mauboy or Tina Turner sing about it. Kids drag their parents to the game to see players like Williams, Greg Inglis, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston weave their magic. If they want to promote the game they just have to point to these guys and do everything they can to keep them in the game.

Melbourne Storm certainly missed Cameron Smith the other night against Wests Tigers. I am amazed by how much better Smith seems to get every year. The Storm are a completely different team without him. Billy Slater isn’t as good, Cooper Cronk isn’t as good, they all struggle. If Smith had played at Leichhardt Oval, the Storm would have won. He returns this week to take on the Broncos and Melbourne will win because he is there.

The Tigers are improving as more players return from injury and a new crop of young players start to make their mark on the game. Wingers David Nofoaluma and Tim Simona are just the tip of the iceberg of a batch of stars coming through the club’s Holden Cup squad. Together with James Tedesco they are setting the Tigers backline up for an exciting future.

The Knights have looked to the past to find the improvement they needed. Against the Titans last weekend they were incredible and you can put it down to having experienced forwards Danny Buderus, Willie Mason, Jeremy Smith and Beau Scott all on the park at the same time. Wayne Bennett has struggled to name his best side all year, but with those four leading the way in the middle of the park, halves Tyrone Roberts and Jarrod Mullen were able to take control. Craig Gower coming off the bench straightens the Knights play up and you can see the improvement in Roberts’ game from having such a talented old head barking at his heals for a run.

Newcastle travels to Mackay on Sunday to tackle the Bulldogs, who will be well-rested after their bye. The Bulldogs had a great win up there last year against Melbourne, led by a brilliant game from Ben Barba. Teams tend to get a good feeling about an unfamiliar venue based on one good result and the Bulldogs will turn up full of confidence. From what I saw from Newcastle last week, I think they can continue to improve and upset the Bulldogs.

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