As we count down to season 2014, NRL.com identifies 30 players who will be crucial to their team's fortunes this year. From new faces to rising stars to proven performers who will need to lift this season, these are our 'MVPs' for 2014.
What else is there to say about Sonny Bill Williams? In 2013 he came, he saw and he conquered – at NRL level, if not the World Cup – as the biggest of the Sydney Roosters' three big signings.
The former Bulldogs-prodigy-turned-All Black lived up to all expectations in his return to the NRL, helping to transform the Roosters from bottom-eight strugglers into major and minor premiers. He couldn't repeat the trick with the Kiwis at the year-ending World Cup, falling to a mighty Kangaroos side in the final, but Sonny's return season in the NRL was undoubtedly a success.
To top it all off, Williams was named the best player on the planet in 2013 by taking out the RLIF's International Player of the Year award.
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The question now is: can he do it again? Williams was hardly an unknown prospect when he first took the field with the Tricolours last season, but nobody knew for sure what kind of impact he would have on his new team. Now all 15 rival NRL clubs are fully aware of the lift the hulking back-rower gives to the Roosters, and stopping him will be priority No.1 for every team that comes up against the reigning premiers in 2014.
Like Rabbitohs superstar Greg Inglis, Williams is an athlete seemingly made for rugby league. He boasts size, strength, good speed and terrific hands. He ranked second in the NRL for offloads last season, and even showcased his ball-playing skills in the halves for the Roosters while Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney were away on Origin duty. The big man also ranked equal-first among forwards for line breaks, and chipped in with eight tries and eight try assists.
Yet his impact goes beyond the numbers – Sonny Bill's potent running game and offloading ability means he frequently draws multiple defenders, allowing him to put fast-footed teammates like Michael Jennings and James Maloney into open space. He's also among the strongest defenders in a rock solid Roosters defensive line.
Thanks to Williams, Jennings, Maloney and new coach Trent Robinson, the Tricolours were the dominant team in the NRL well before they defeated Manly in last year's grand final. They scored more points, conceded the fewest, made more line breaks and broke more tackles than any other team in the competition.
But how much of that was down to a fit and firing Sonny Bill Williams? If the big man fails to match the heights of his comeback season, will the Roosters fall back to the pack? Will the talented Roosters backline continue to thrive if Williams isn't busting holes in the defence up front? And will the all-conquering Tricolours pack continue to dominate if their talisman isn't leading the way?
Sonny Bill Williams has already competed at the highest level in three sports and is no stranger to pressure, but the expectations on him will be enormous in what will be his second and final season with the Roosters before a return to New Zealand rugby union in 2015. His re-signing with the Tricolours for another year was a massive boost to the club's chances of going back-to-back, but anything short of matching his 2013 performances will be seen as a disappointment for Williams in 2014.