Former ALP powerbroker Graham Richardson ended the Sonny Bill Williams saga, brokering a deal between the renegade footballer and the Bulldogs.
In a heady chain of events played out late last night, the club has verbally agreed to a $750,000 payout from Williams, allowing him to break a five-year deal to take up a $2 million contract with French rugby side Toulon.
And in an unprecedented move for rugby league, Williams decided to negotiate the deal himself and offer his former club $750,000 to end court action against him.
The Bulldogs board baulked at the figure late yesterday and demanded a price tag of $1m.
Keen to end the melodrama over the future of their runaway star, and wary of protracted legal wrangling, they finally came to a deal late last night.
“We’ve had some good discussions and we’re close to finalising a deal,” Bulldogs chief executive Todd Greenberg told the Herald.
“We’re not prepared to speculate on the details. But we’re confident that we can finalise the details over the weekend.”
The Herald understands the peace deal has been in the wings for some time involving Richardson and lawyer Mike O’Brien, who was the ARL’s lawyer during its fight against Super League last decade.
“I don’t see this as selling out whatsoever,” Greenberg said. “It’s important for people to know that he [Williams] and Toulon contacted us.
“We haven’t gone chasing any of this. We were prepared to take the matter to court and make him accountable and still are if an agreement is not reached.”
Williams withdrew at the 11th hour from his side’s pre-season match against Toulouse yesterday morning (Sydney time) so he would not breach a NSW Supreme Court injunction banning him from playing with another club.
If Williams had played, he risked being found in contempt of court, facing arrest and the seizure of his Australian assets, including the $1.3m Sydney home now on the market.
Instead, Williams watched from the stands with good friend and boxer Anthony Mundine.
“A financial settlement is going to be found at the beginning of next week,” Toulon club president Mourad Boudjellal told reporters in France, adding he did not want to “inflame the situation” with the Bulldogs.
Greenberg received a call from Richardson with news of Williams’s bid to resolve the matter out of court. Greenberg confirmed any settlement with Williams would also mean the club would not pursue Khoder Nasser, the manager who the Bulldogs and NRL claim induced Williams into breaking his contract.
While the settlement is unlikely to prove a deterrent to cashed-up French rugby clubs raiding rugby league’s stocks, NRL chief executive David Gallop claimed an early victory.
“The fact he has decided not to defy the injunction sends a clear message to people who want to break their contract,” he said.
Asked if he was pushing for Williams to be prevented from playing for Toulon until the end of the NRL season, Gallop said: “How long he stays on the sidelines is one of the issues that has been raised.”
This financial settlement will be an embarrassment for the NRL, which has talked tough since Williams fled the country in a bid to stop others from joining the exodus.
In European football, the size of a transfer fee usually depends on the status of the player, but the minimum usually amounts to one season of a new contract.
The Bulldogs have argued before the courts already that Williams’s defection could have a wide-reaching effect on the club.
“I’ve said on a few occasions that the issue is that not only does his departure impact on us on the field but also off the field,” Greenberg said.
“An impact across the whole business: current and future players, supporters, sponsors. We need to take all that into account on the next range of discussions with Toulon.”
It is also believed the Bulldogs and NRL are in dispute over spiralling legal fees, which are believed to be about $300,000.
“They will be large,” Greenberg said. “The NRL promised at the start that they would cover the legal fees. We’ve been in discussion with Gallop about it.”