SBW: I'm a better person now
Sonny Bill Williams reckons he has never been happier as he prepares to make his eagerly awaited return to action.
He was named as the most hated man in Australia after he walked out on a five-year contract with Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008 for the riches of rugby union but he made a glorious return to league this year with Sydney Roosters and is now hoping to make his mark with the national team, starting with Sunday's opening World Cup group match against Samoa in Warrington.
Williams opened up about his controversial past and his new-found happiness in his first interview on British soil at an open New Zealand training session in St Helens, where he provided a rare insight into his religious beliefs.
He was raised a Christian but his interest in Islam was sparked by his friendship with Muslims Anthony Mundine and Khoder Nasser, who became his manager in 2008.
"I wouldn't be half the man I am today without my faith," he said. "I guess it gets brought up because it's a lot different religion to the other boys but there's a few brothers there that are into their religion.
"But we all come together as one at the end of the day."
Williams won the World Cup with the All Blacks and also embarked on a successful boxing career during his five-year exile from the 13-man code. He also grew up.
"One of the biggest things I learnt from the way I left rugby league in the first place was that life is not all about sport," he said. "You finish at 32, 33 and you still have your whole life to live.
"It was a big learning experience and humbling as well. I think I became a better person for it.
"Now I'm pretty content with the man I see in the mirror, the way I carry myself. I'm a lot more confident than I was when I was a 22 or 23-year-old.
"I copped a lot of criticism but I have a lot of support as well. I thrive off that. When I walk the streets I get a lot of love and a lot of respect. When I play well, I do it for those people, for my family. I don't know if it shows, but I definitely walk around with a bit of a swagger because I'm happy as a man."
Williams, who is hoping to become the first player to win a World Cup in both codes of rugby, will win his eighth cap against the nation he could have been playing for.
"I'm proud of being half Samoan," he said. "My father is a pretty staunch Samoan but I grew up in New Zealand and I'm very proud to represent my country. It was an honour to do it in the 15-man sport as well."