At first Sam Williams was hope.
The purest hope that can only come with the optimism of youth. The kind that tell us that things can and will get better. That the long arc of history bends towards justice. That we can and will change the world in big movements, with bold steps and brave hearts. When we’re younger we believe those things because there’s no evidence we’re wrong. Then life comes and things get muddy.
But when Sam Williams tore the Cronulla Sharks apart in the 2012 semi final I would have believed anything was possible. He’d been a junior Kangaroo. He’d come up through the local system. Todd Carney was gone but maybe he could be better? Did I believe because of what he was or what I needed? It’s hard to tell, but I wanted him to solve the curse that had followed Canberra 7s around since Kevin Neil broke Ricky Stuart’s heart. It was naïvete on my behalf but that’s where I was at the time. I wanted him to be great because Terrey Campese had shown me how fun it could be to believe what Todd Carney had ripped away. I pinned things on Sam because I wanted to be more than he was.
He was such a prototypical halfback. A football head, he always seemed to make the right plays, his brain his strongest athletic ability. He wasn’t a dynamic runner – though he found his way to and through the line more than most remember. He wasn’t big kick but the ball always landed where it needed to. He would be targeted in defence because he was tiny, but he was always willing to get body contact on a rampaging second-rower if only he could get help to bring him down.
The 2012 semi was promise. Possibility that his skill and intelligence could overcome his athletic challenges. Williams was in everything that day. The best player on the field in the biggest game of the season (in two seasons? Since the Tigers’ semi?). For so long a functional seven had been either a dream or a crippling reality. If forcing Ricky Stuart out created a curse on Canberra’ sevens, then Todd Carney was its personification. It was all right there, and he just couldn’t get out of his own way. Then Sam came along. Maybe he didn’t have the talent, but he had the nouse, and the will, and if you caught me on a sunny day with some beers I would have quietly whispered “what if he’s the one?” to you and you would have laughed and ordered me a taxi.
It never did work out, at least not in the sense of becoming a saviour for a franchise that had spent so much time out of the limelight that it became used to the dark. Williams came, went, and came back again. He became Stuart’s security blanket. The sober one of the group, given the keys anytime things got a little out of control. He took over from Mitch Cornish when the coach decided his promise would only ever be that. He was given time in the top line any time Stuart thought Aidan Sezer needed to be taught a lesson. When Sticky lost his patience with George Williams’ desire to go home, Sam again was there to pick up the pieces. He never turned a season on his own, or was the sole reason things improved. He just played his role, and made things better.
Instead of being what we wanted, Williams became what the club needed. A leader without being a hero. It was a more honest hope. The kind that springs after life has beaten your optimism out of you. When you realise small differences, little improvements are sometimes as important as big ones. Sometimes pushing the needle in the right direction is all we can hope to do, if only to create an easier pathway for those who come after. To take our hands in the dark and point out the stars.
This was so perfectly demonstrated in the infamous ‘Baby Raiders’ game, when Sammy took a talented bunch of neophytes and turned them into fully grown men, if only for a moment. It could have been a game with a built in excuse, one where the Raiders lost because it didn’t matter if they won. But before the game he spoke to the club, to explain how he wouldn’t accept noble loss, that he wouldn’t let the boys take it easy. That while winning wouldn’t really change their situation, this was about a responsibility to the club, the his team mates. He didn’t want their first, and sometimes only, experience of first grade be tarnished by loss. He wanted to win, because he wanted to have a beer with them after a win. For some in the clubroom that beer will be the best moment of their lives. At the time we called it the best moment of the year.
Sammy retired last year, a decision people who know more about things than me classed as selfless. As if to prove that correct, instead of heading over to England in search of a quick buck and remaining in the bright lights, Williams signed up for the Queanbeyan Kangaroos. He immediately set about providing the same leadership, the same kind arm around the shoulders that he’d provided for the Raiders to the wider Canberra region rugby league community. As Williams himself told everythingrugbyleague.com
I’d like to think that we’re in a position as a club that people want to come and play for us for the right reasons. And that to me is enjoying your football and learning and getting better and trying to push yourself. And I think it’s lost sometimes within certain people within community sport at times.
I think we can have a really positive impact on a lot of people around this region, rugby league people and the wider community… It gives me an opportunity to not only try and make some players better, but try and get the community and the wider region behind the club.
In the grand scheme of things Sam won’t be moving heaven and earth. He won’t change the nature of football in one fell swoop. Call it a more humble approach to delivering for the community he’s already donated so much to over the years. But again, another positive, albeit small, step in the right direction for a bunch of people most barely think about.
So maybe he never dragged Canberra back to the promised land like the effervescent aspiration I held. Not by himself at least. He couldn’t deliver on a promise we ascribed to him. A pleading demand that be succeed where others had failed. Instead of giving us what we wanted, he gave us what was needed. The start. A contribution to building something that could be better than what came before, something that he’s promised in his new role as well.
In the end Sam wasn’t naïve hope. He was the kindness of a neighbour passing spare veggies over the fence. A friend looking after your kids because you and your partner need a break. Someone chasing you down because you dropped something and seeking nothing but the look of relief on your face. A small offering pushing the Raiders towards something better.
And I doubt I’m the only person grateful for it.
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