Sonny Bill a question-mark ahead of Toronto Wolfpack pre-season game Sunday

Star signing Sonny Bill Williams may not see action Sunday when the Toronto Wolfpack visit Castleford Tigers for their one official pre-season game in advance of Super League play.

"Everybody's asking about Sonny Bill and his availability," Toronto coach Brian McDermott said from England. "Rightly so, expectedly so.

"But I'll tell everybody I won't rush him. He's not to be rushed. I think the transition from rugby (union) to rugby league is going to be a big one for him. Or we're finding out it's a big one."

While the 34-year-old Williams has switched between rugby's codes several times during his career, he has not played league since 2014 (with the Sydney Roosters in Australia's NRL).

McDermott estimates Williams will run perhaps twice as many kilometres in a rugby league game than he would in a rugby union outing. While McDermott has described Williams as a "gym freak," he wants to give his marquee man time to adjust.

"And like most of the people in the squad, he's got one or two little bumps and bruises because of how hard we're training at the moment," he added.

McDermott said Williams will be named in the Wolfpack travelling squad with a decision on participation to be made later.

The transatlantic rugby league team kicks off its fourth season — and first in the top-tier Betfred Super League — for real on Feb. 2 against Castleford in a Super League doubleheader at Emerald Headingley Stadium in Leeds.

McDermott, who has cautioned it will take his team some time to adjust to the pace and demands of the Super League, would rather have a fully prepared Williams and a result in the season opener than a meaningless exhibition win.

The Wolfpack confirmed their squad numbers for the season Friday. Williams will wear No. 21 with fellow newcomers Brad Singleton and James Cunningham taking No. 18 and No. 20, respectively.

McDermott continues to work with a small 23-man squad at the Wolfpack's English training base in Manchester. That offers little cover for a game that sees teams dress 17 players, including four on the bench, for games.

But the Wolfpack have no more room under the 2.1-million-pound ($3.6 million) salary cap.

"I want to stress to everyone that that's not because of mismanagement of the squad," said McDermott.

While Williams' two-year, $9-million deal — which includes an ownership stake in the club — far exceeds the amount allowed, only 150,000 pounds ($255,300) of it counts against the cap because he is designated as one of the club's two marquee players (Australian-born Samoan international centre Ricky Leutele is the other one). 

McDermott says the club has to play premium prices to get players to leave their homes and families for chunks of the season. Plus the Wolfpack do not get some of the salary cap breaks afforded other teams that promote players from their academies. Toronto has no such development pipeline.

The coach says the club is exploring ways of getting salary cap help from the authorities because of its unique status.

"At the moment, we've got 23 players. We'd like to increase that but at the moment we can't move."

Sunday's pre-season game is at Castleford, whose stadium is colourfully named Mend-a-Hose Jungle (after sponsor Mend-A-Hose Hydraulics).

The contest is a testimonial for Castleford Tigers captain Michael Shenton, who has played more than 300 games and scored more than 100 tries in his 15-year career.

The former England international, who spent two years at St. Helens, captained the Tigers to the 2017 League Leaders' Shield as well as in the 2014 Challenge Cup Final and the 2017 Grand Final.

"He's been a really robust, tough centre in the game for a lot of years," said McDermott. "I think it would be fair for me to say that he's not the biggest, the fastest or the most skillful centre that's every played. But certainly he's probably one of the toughest centres that's played the game the last 20 years. And people respect him in the game highly because he gets as much out of his game as he's possibly able to do so."

The Wolfpack's home opener at Lamport Stadium is April 18 against Hull FC.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2020.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press