SBW backed by Tonga

LIKE many, Willie Tonga will be hoping to watch Sonny Bill Williams's first game, intrigued about how he will take to the task. It has been more than four years since Williams played in the competition, and it has changed dramatically in his absence.

Williams knows that, and so does Tonga, because the pair have been discussing the challenges awaiting the former All Blacks star on his return regularly.

''He's asked me about the game, and he asked me about certain players,'' Tonga said on Wednesday after Williams confirmed his return to the NRL, on a one-year deal with Sydney Roosters the day before. ''He's asked me about how the game's changed over the last four years, or since he's been away.

''It's changed a lot, with the wrestle. But I think he's learnt a lot of skill being with the rugby boys. He's told me that the skill level with the rugby boys, compared to league, is a lot different, and he's learnt a lot from that. He's looking forward to coming back and putting that into his game.

''It'll be interesting to see his first game. I'm looking forward to it.''

Tonga said Williams had long been curious about what lay ahead when they had talked about his code switch, whether at the beach or while they shared a meal.

''He's asked what Haynesy [Jarryd Hayne] is like, what it's like to play alongside him,'' Tonga said. ''He's a massive Benny Barba fan - he's asked what it's like to play against him.

''You can see that excitement. I've caught up with him a couple of times since he's been back, and he's really excited.

''He can't wait. He's a bit nervous, but he's looking forward to the challenge at the same time. I'm glad to see him back in the game.''

Barba's first-grade debut coincided with Williams walking out on the Bulldogs, which emphasises how long it has been since Williams has played in the NRL.

But Tonga, a former teammate of Williams at the Bulldogs, has ''no doubt at all'' that the Kiwi's return will be successful. ''Without pumping his tyres up too much, he's a freak of an athlete,'' Tonga said. ''It blows me away to think of what he's actually done.''

The Sonny Bill effect has already been felt by the Roosters. In the period from Tuesday morning - the day of Williams's signing - until late yesterday, the club reported a 224 per cent increase in membership sales compared with the corresponding two days last year.

''It's the Sonny Bill effect,'' said Ted Helliar, Roosters chief operating officer, commercial.

A signing with a little less impact occurred yesterday, but it was significant nonetheless. St George Illawarra bolstered their squad by signing Bronson Harrison to a two-year deal, after the New Zealand representative secured a release from Canberra.

''The Dragons are a fantastic club with a proud tradition and a great record, and I'm looking forward to joining them,'' Harrison said.

The story SBW backed by Tonga first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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