Rugby league has been blessed with plenty of star players, household names known all around the world. Perhaps none more so than the likes of Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams.
Between them the two characterised peak rugby league for well over a decade. Both men claimed the biggest honours in the game and were arguably the very best in the world at one stage.
But which of the talismanic second-rowers was the better player in their prime?
Sonny Bill Williams:
Let’s start with Sonny Bill Williams, after all he burst onto the scene first. Williams made his NRL debut for Canterbury Bulldogs in 2004 at just 18 years of age. He impressed so much that he was swiftly called up to the New Zealand international squad and made his test debut just months after his league debut.
He was outstanding in 2004 even helping the Bulldogs to the Premiership. He came off the bench in the 2004 NRL Grand Final as Canterbury downed Sydney. He was subsequently named Newcomer of the Year by the RLIF.
2005 saw him battle against Super League opposition for the very first time when he met Leeds Rhinos at Elland Road in the World Club Challenge. Despite a stunning performance from Williams, Canterbury lost to the English Champions. 2005 wasn’t the best year for the second-row as he missed the bulk of the campaign through injury. 2006 was better. Despite being a forward he averaged well over a try every 3 games – not bad. However, he bettered that in 2007 scoring 14 tries in 21 games making the most offloads in the competition and again taking Canterbury to the play-offs.
Sadly, 2008 saw him leave our game to try his hand in rugby union garnering success at Toulon before moving back down under to play union at Canterbury and then Crusaders. He then helped New Zealand win the 2011 Rugby Union World Cup before winning the Super Rugby Championship with the Chiefs. He finished his first stint in the sport with a man of the match performance for New Zealand in his final appearance.
In 2013 he returned to rugby league with Sydney Roosters determined to create history by winning both the rugby union and rugby league world cups. It wasn’t to be. However, he did lead the Kiwis to the final. That was after he had won his second NRL title with Sydney. In his two seasons with the Rooster they finished top and arguably should’ve won back-to-back Grand Finals. Instead, Sam Burgess’ Souths won the title in 2014.
He then returned to rugby union with the Chiefs and went onto reclaim the Rugby Union World Cup. After a few more successful years in union, he returned to rugby league with the Toronto Wolfpack ready to take Super League by storm. However, he didn’t win a game as the Wolfpack struggled and, in the wake of the pandemic, left the competition meaning his league career came to an end with a second stint at Sydney Roosters.
Now onto Slamming Sam. He debuted in 2006 at the age of 18 with the Bradford Bulls and was instantly likened to Sonny Bill. Super League’s Young Player of the Year in 2007 was called up to the Great Britain squad and helped Tony Smith’s side to a 3-0 series win over New Zealand. After another outstanding season in 2008, he agreed to join South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2010. He had one last hurrah at Odsal impressing again in 2009 before setting out to prove himself in Australia.
Such was his pedigree, he was instantly called up to the NRL All Stars game before he’d even made his Souths debut. His arrival at Souths helped establish them as a major force in the competition as they began sniffing around top spot and the Grand Final.
The return of Sonny Bill to the NRL coincided with Burgess’ best years resulting in some titanic battles as the world’s best two forwards butted head for Australia’s two oldest rivals as they tussled for success. Having watched Sonny Bill claim the NRL crown in 2013 before dumping him out of the World Cup, Burgess kicked it up a notch in 2014. Despite breaking his cheek bone in the very first tackle of the NRL Grand Final, Burgess inspired Souths to victory. He even claimed the Clive Churchill medal as man of the match as he produced perhaps the greatest ever forward performance in a Grand Final.
After that he tried his hand at rugby union looking to add a Rugby Union World Cup to his growing list of accomplishments. He did feature for England in the World Cup but it was a disappointing campaign for them and for Burgess as they were dumped out at the group stage.
So, he returned to rugby league and South Sydney and picked up where he left off continuing to take Souths into the latter stages of the competition. On top of that, he continued to be vital to English international success guiding them to the World Cup Final as skipper following the injury to Sean O’Loughlin.
In 2019 he was named in the NRL’s team of the decade whilst also leading Souths to 3rd in the table. His dream of a second Premiership was ironically ended by the man considered his heir: John Bateman and his Canberra team.
Sadly, that would be his final game as he retired due to a chronic shoulder injury.
The rate at which Sonny Bill was able to score despite playing in the pack and his attacking prowess during two successful World Cup campaigns with the All Blacks demonstrates that he perhaps was the more skilful, mercurial player. Wherever he went he brough success no matter the code. However, Burgess was perhaps the more physical of the two hence his ability to play at prop and at 13. He also spent his prime years in rugby league unlike Williams who spent much of his peak outside of the game.
Ultimately, I’d say Burgess was the better forward but Williams was the more complete player just because of what he was able to do with the ball. If you needed a try late on in a big game there were few better options than giving the ball to Sonny Bill. Thus, he was the better player in his prime.