Familiar, but Different: When Sporting Legends Return

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The NRL that Sonny Bill Williams left six years ago to join the Toronto Wolfpack in Super League was a very different NRL to the one he returns to in late 2020, as a 35-year old. Naturally, being out of the game - adopting the arguably slower-paced rugby union, is a challenge for anyone, including even the most talented, storied players of the game of rugby.

In a game already renowned for being the faster of the versions of rugby, it's no surprise Williams' return was a short one. He was on the pitch a total of 14 minutes for the Sydney Roosters in an 18-6 victory over the Canberra Raiders - a taster of what's to come, perhaps. 

However, this recent return raises an interesting question that stretches across many sports. Speculation remains rife on whether someone, who demonstrates an almost unnatural sporting aptitude and ability on a range of sports, can return to a sport they played once before with strong chances of success. How far does talent cover for physical decline; can legends of the game take such breaks and return with the same impact? Let's look at some of the best-known examples. 

From Free-throw to Fastballs

Michael Jordan's departure from basketball was short-lived, barely over a year spent in Minor league baseball, triggered by the death of his father and a loss of desire to play the game he had dominated for roughly seven years. In terms of physical decline, this story isn't a great example. Jordan was in his prime, and his talent certainly hadn't decreased. The real concern, in this case, was adapting to baseball after basketball, which requires a completely different set of physical strengths. Jordan left basketball after his first ‘three-peat' - three consecutive championships. He returned, famously, with a two-word press release, stating ‘I'm Back.' He went on to win his second ‘three-peat' immediately after.   

Bigger Gloves, Bigger Expectations

Conor McGregor was on top of the world when he retired, and not for the first time. He'd made a habit of retiring via his Twitter account on a number of occasions. In 2017, he was looking for a ‘money fight' and found it in the 39-year old, undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. Age was against Mayweather, and McGregor's background in boxing gave him a knowledge base. In the end, the fight was surprisingly competitive, and fighting the greatest defensive boxer in history proved too much for McGregor. The decision went to Floyd, who retired directly after and made $280 million. McGregor made $130 million and promptly returned to MMA, losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov in a close match.

Built Differently

Sonny-Bill Williams has enjoyed success in boxing, rugby union, and rugby league at this point. The sharpest change he made was by donning boxing gloves - and his record stands at 7-0. In the same way that retired England forward, James Haskell made the move to combat sports, the game of rugby lends itself through the mixture of skills required to be a successful forward player. Sonny-Bill demonstrated through his boxing victories, that his natural affinity for contact sports goes way beyond the rules of rugby. As the Roosters embark on their final three games of the season, they are now strong rugby league betting favourites to defeat the Newcastle Knights in their next game.

The expectation should be high and consistent for Williams. As he makes a full return, and banks a few more minutes in a familiar, albeit faster, environment - there is no reason why his gifts won't take over and any cobwebs that might have accumulated are swiftly removed.