Toulon expect big things from Big Willie the Baa Baa
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. 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.