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Toulon expect big things from Big Willie the Baa Baa

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George Riley George Riley | 16:36 UK time, Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Four weeks after I ridiculed the Willie Mason passport saga at Hull KR, here we are watching a fittingly bizarre denouement to the farce.

Unable to persuade the King of Tonga to grant the passport that would have reversed his ludicrous de-registering just six games into a Super League career, the Australian rugby league enforcer is now set for his union debut at Twickenham without ever having played the sport.

His move to Toulon was mooted in my blog last month and has now been agreed for next season. Hours later the 31-year-old was included in the Barbarians squad. So, as he prepares himself to convince his new French employers that he can cut it in club rugby union, Mason's first chance comes for the famous Baa Baas against England and a packed Twickenham.

It is fair to say that my followers on Twitter were joining me in a head-shake at hearing the news. "Ridiculous, he's becoming a laughing stock," said Paul Glover . "What. A. Joke. Are the Barbarians that desperate?!!" asked Paul Anley. "In at the deep end for Big Willie! Very strange twist in a very strange soap opera," said James Burke.

Willie Mason trains with the Barbarians

Willie Mason trains with the Barbarians. Photo: Getty Images

Whether he sinks or swims at Twickenham - or indeed against Wales at the Millennium Stadium a week later, it is clear that his new club side are expecting big things from "Big Willie." My BBC Radio 5 live colleague Christopher Jones called Toulon this week to confirm that they had released another controversial character in Gavin Henson, so I made sure we broached the subject of their latest big-name gamble.

"Willie is someone who has only ever played rugby league and he is obviously a great rugby league player," the Toulon team manager, Tom Whitford, told us. No one would dispute that, but what will this giant of league bring to the game of union? "He'll bring talent, size, speed and agility," said Whitford. "It won't be easy for him as it is a change of sport but we are confident he'll adjust quickly. The Barbarians will be baptism of fire for him - we'll be watching closely and we are sure he'll do well."

Toulon clearly want Mason to follow in the footsteps of his former Canterbury Bulldogs team-mate Sonny Bill Williams and play inside centre, having transformed the New Zealand rugby league international from a forward to a powerful union three-quarter for the All Blacks. But Mason is a very different player, employing brute force where Williams uses guile.

"Sonny was here two years and learned the ropes here and we're very proud of that fact," said Whitford. "He went on to play for the All Blacks too so we hope Willie can step into his shoes. We are very confident he can do, otherwise we wouldn't have signed him."

So the on-field gamble is not a big one, if you listen to the French rugby union side. But are they gambling - as Hull KR did - on a reformed character off the field? Henson leaves Toulon having hardly covered himself in glory with an incident with his team-mates in a nightclub. And Mason himself has a lengthy list of similar social misdemeanours.

"To be honest, when we come to recruiting a player we always say to them that the past is the past - let bygones be bygones," said Whitford.

"Every player starts at Toulon with a clean slate and we will judge you from there on what you do at Toulon.

"If we look into people's pasts then you can make clouded judgements on rumours you've heard and so forth. Everyone has a history but we will never judge anyone until we have them ourselves. We will judge him on and off the pitch and we are confident he will do well for us."

What does appear increasingly likely is that Mason has hit a rugby league line for the last time. But then again, expect the unexpected is perhaps the maxim in this story. Maybe rumours of a move to American Football in the NFL will resurface next.

Which brings me to Keith Senior, and the fear amongst Leeds fans this week that the veteran centre may have worn the Blue and Amber for the final time. Senior will not play again this season after confirmation of a cruciate knee ligament injury and will have an operation at the start of June. The former Great Britain international is now 35 years old and runs out of contract at the end of the season.

I know Senior dearly wants to return for one more year but there has to be huge doubts. Still a commanding presence at left centre, the power remains where the pace has diminished, and Senior will hope a move to the second row may convince Leeds to hand him one more year. The fans will hope so too, otherwise it will be a sad farewell to one of Super League's stalwarts. Knowing Senior, I do not think he is done yet.


  • Comment number 1.

    Embarrassing for union to pick a guy for an international who has never played. Although I full expect him to smash the England and Wales forwards.

  • Comment number 2.

    Not really embarrassing for union seeing as the Barbarians is just a showcase event. The fact Mason is on the bench will attract more people to the match and thats the point.
    He certainly wouldnt be included in any league or cup matches without having had a full pre season getting up to speed, although at 31 im not sure how easy he'll find it at inside centre?

  • Comment number 3.

    Embarrasing how? The Barbarians often pick players who have come to the end of their international career, indeed who are retiring altogether imminently, who haven't quite made international status yet and who for whatever reason are a bit different. They are showcase games, where internationals won't want to get injured ahead of the World Cup but want to show what they can do. Their mantra is one of producing free flowing games, which actually might suit Big Willie, with skills on display that suit both codes. So long as he remembers what to do when tackled...

  • Comment number 4.

    I past caring about the whole 'Mason saga' a while ago. We tried, and ultimately failed, in our aims to get one of RL's biggest personalities off the quota and I think it is right for us to finally draw a line under in the sand on this now. Justin Morgan said he wishes WM all the best in his new venture - so as far as Hull KR are concerned, that is it.

    We got a bit of a laugh out of having him around, though.

    Union may benefit from a couple of years of WM - only time will tell. What Toulon have done is brought in an RL 'superstar' and they will further increase interest in their game because people will be interested to see how he gets on playing a different sport.

  • Comment number 5.

    Interesting to see how he fares.

    On another note, only just seen and read your post about 'Quins and giving tickets away for the Castleford match. Any reason why you didn't mention that the game was also the 2nd in a double bill, kindly hosted by 'Quins, in memory of a Cas fan who died in Afghanistan while serving in the British Army- Bombardier Craig Hopson?

  • Comment number 6.

    It'll be interesting to see how Mason gets on. Toulon, clearly are looking for the next SBW but I believe he is a one-off and Mason will fail to live up to expectation in a tough Top 14 next season.

    This Barbarians squad however looks great and I'll be keen to see how Tim Visser gets on given that he's only one year away from a Scotland cap.

  • Comment number 7.

    The Barbarians were once worth watching as a Corinthian concept in rugby. Now they are a money making franchise. I wouldn't cross the road to watch them or the matches they are involved in and to invite Mason and not someone who has played union for years either at the start or end of their careers is also an insult to proven rugby union players. Toulon - who publicly bad mouthed Henson before inevitably ending his tenure there also emerge badly from this - they have become a circus and not the club they perceive themselves as. It is sad to see rugby union losing ever more credibility and class as a sport as money dominates.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think Toulon might have caught a cold here. Just can't see Willie being a centre. It was obvious to anyone who knew about either code that SBW had all the makings of a class inside centre in union, but Mason's instincts are those of a forward. They'll not be sure where to play him. It'll be a bit like it was with Farrell, for whom I always thought fly-half or centre was the union position for him, but they didn't cotton on to that for a while. The forward techniques are completely different. Hope I'm wrong, though!

  • Comment number 9.

    Jackbeats writes 'He certainly wouldnt be included in any league or cup matches without having had a full pre season getting up to speed'... are you kidding. He'll be the fittest man on the field! It'll take a couple of months in Union for his fitness to go down hill.

  • Comment number 10.

    George - I would have preferred more regarding your thoughts on Keith Senior and his injury as 'Keef' must have some decision to make as prior to the injury he was still a very good player. He's been a stalwart at the Rhinos and GB/England set up for nye on a decade or more. Far more appropriate for a British Rugby League commentator to discuss Rugby League issues than comment on an over the hill journeyman from down under (Masons been on the slide for a number of years- long before Hull KR signed him) whose now playing the kick and clap game over in France.

  • Comment number 11.

    George, does anyone who cares for Rugby league have any further interest in WM?
    After his behaviour towards our sport and HKR he has become about as useful as Bill Beaumont's comments on how to beat the Kangaroos and given the rest of his questionable behaviour should fit right in at Toulon! But aren't the wolves, Giants and Dragons looking really good this season, and will all three make to the semis of the Play-offs? I really hope so! yours in condescending regard to all other sports

  • Comment number 12.

    Why is this story in the Rugby League section? Willie Mason is a rugby onion problem now. League has moved on to other more interesting stories, such as Hull FC signing Wade McKinnon for next season, although I bet he had to bring his passport to the meeting.

  • Comment number 13.

    @7 - I think you've hit the nail on the head. The Barbars concept has long been dead in the minds of all but the most romantic of Union-ites. The days are long gone when they can attract a half decent side of credible internationals.

    @2&3 - If you don't think its embarrassing either for Toulon to pick up an ailing 31 year old forward with a shortage of pace and no handling skills of which to speak and for him to be thrown into a rep side for his first game, you are kidding yourselves. Further, I doubt whether the Barbar's faithful (if there is such a thing) or the wider Union community will have heard much about Big Willie at all so the argument about getting more along to the game will prove ill-conceived

    Good riddance to Mason; were it not for the fact that he's pulling in a damn sight more than most RL players in both hemispheres by signing for Toulon, I would say without hesitation that he's scuttled off to France with his tail between his legs. I suspect, however, that he's really rather glad of the way that things have turned out which is a damning reflection on his character (if it ever needed any further tainting).

    As for Keef, the fans at Heado will not be sorry to see him go. He's hung on too long already. The Rhino's need fresh blood to see them return to championship form. Keef, nor modest imports from down under (Delany), are not a centre partnership to take us to the GF.

  • Comment number 14.

    Mason has no handling skills? Really?

  • Comment number 15.

    Yet again more massive fuss over a RL player. RL prodcues some fabulous skillful players with loads of talent - where it seems to stay. Yes people will crank out a few that came across successfully, but it's got to be worth gaining a view on new comers after experience before this type of hype.

    Utter cobblers.

  • Comment number 16.

    Please get this garbage link off the page and replace it with something more interesting, constructive, and relevent to RL.


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