With the Wales Legend preparing to make his International bow in Cardiff tommorow, TR looksat the one man who has single-handedly inspired a generation of valley-dwellers...
As we go through life, there are things that make us stop and look. Brief glimpses of things so extraordinary that nobody can dare turn away and miss it. These said moments appear in all walks of life, but none more than sport: A pursuit built around the desire to be one of these earth-bound marvels, something thousands aim to achieve but only a few can ever achieve. And if we were to stop and look for those who fit into this category in the game of Rugby Football Union, then there are few names more fitting than Shane Williams to snuggle alongside Jonah Lomu and Gareth Edwards as the greatest athletes the sport has ever produced.
Born 26th February 1977 in Morriston, near Swansea, Shane Mark Williams was the youngest of Christine and Mark Williams’ four children. Growing up in Amman Valley in west Wales, Shanes’ first encounter with a rugby ball was in his primary school, where he was judged as being ‘too small’ for such a physical sport, instead being put in the local Football side, where he excelled at the early age as both a goalkeeper and an outfield player and even had a trial for Swansea City that could have eventually seen him representing Wales with the round ball. However, fate got in Shane’s way as he followed his friends to play Rugby for Amman United’s third side, slotting in at scrum-half, despite further concerns about his size, he went on to score 5 tries in the match exhibiting the kind of athleticism and quick-thinking that made his name worldwide. Playing entirely on instinct with no training whatsoever, Shane continued playing both Rugby and Football, until Neath RFC (Then Wales’ biggest club, before their merger to become the Ospreys) offered him a professional contract as an extra scrum-half before then-coach Lyn Jones realised he had to have this young man on the field, placing the 20-year-old on the wing- a position he went on to make his own.
Come the year 2000, and we were in a post-Lomu world. The big man had torn opposition defences apart with his mixture of brute strength and insane speed and everyone was searching for a player to call ‘The Next Lomu’. Wales, at the time, were starting Dafydd James (6’5”, 16 stone 8) and Gareth Thomas (6’2”, 15 st 6) on the wings, looking to mimic Lomu, until then-Wales manager Graham Henry decided to select Shane Williams. Making his debut from the bench against France, Shane threw an interception pass on his first touch of the ball that resulted in a try for the French yet in went on to start against Italy later in the Championship, scoring a try that was, unbeknown to the world, the first of many.
But not yet. Despite managing 10 tries in his first 10 games, Henry dropped Shane from the squad entirely for the rest of his reign as manager, and his successor, fellow Kiwi Steve Hansen, also dismissed him as being “Too small for international Rugby”. It wasn’t until 2003 in the unlikely location of Wrexham in a friendly against Romania that Hansen didn’t want to play that Shane got another chance. Selected on the left wing, he scored two tries, and such was the media pressure that Hansen had to pick him, but not as a wing, but as an emergency third-choice scrum-half. It was a frustrating tournament for Shane up until the game against the All Blacks in Sydney, by which point Wales had already qualified for the Quarter-Finals and Hansen decided to rest key members of the team, selecting Shane at 14. It was here that he really made his mark on international rugby- Fooling the tournament favourites defence time after time, making break after break and scoring a try in the process. While Wales lost valiantly, Shane kept his place in the team, once more dazzling eventual winners England and setting up the try of the tournament for Stephen Jones, in doing so cementing his place as one of the worlds’ most exciting wingers.
From there, Shane really kicked on. His split-second acceleration, ability to change direction at speed and natural gift for beating defenders were now known worldwide, but that didn’t mean they could stop him, as Shane contributed 4 tries to Wales’ collection during their 2005 Grand Slam campaign, including one against England that proved to be the difference between the two sides come the final whistle. Selected for the British and Irish Lions tour that year, Shane scored 6 tries on tour and managed a Lions record of 5 tries in one match, which pushed him into the test side for the final two tests against New Zealand. He went on to nab ‘05’s IRB try of the year with a spectacular 80-metre effort against Australia in a great Welsh victory over the Wallabies. Shane continued to test defences throughout the world for the next three years, the highlight being his length-of-the-field try against Fiji in the 2007 World Cup, voted his finest try by Wales Online.
While Shane had a career of standout moments, notching up 35 tries over the years up to this point, we doubt when he came to on January 1st 2008 he was expecting to have the greatest year an International winger has ever experiences. It all began in February, as Wales overcame a 24-year history of defeat at Twickenham to stand triumphant over rivals and World Cup finalists England, more thanks to a stand-out performance from James Hook than anything else, but with Shane doing his job with some aplomb. It wasn’t until the Six Nations Championship’s second game, against Scotland, that the world saw the sort of form he’s capable of as he ran in two tries, the second of which one of the best individual tries you’ll see, as he created something from nothing, shooting through a gap that wasn’t there, rounding the fullback and managing to dive in the corner despite having already lost his balance and being hit by another Scottish tackler, contorting his body to the most awkward of angles in order to prevent contact with the touchline or cornerflag. Another two tries against Italy followed, one of which ran in from half-way, beating 6 Italians, before one individual moment of brilliance from Shane lead to the game’s only try in a hard-fought dogfight against Ireland, as “Sizzling Shane” cut the Ireland defence in two and left their players flounding as they struggled to lay a finger on him, let alone prevent him scoring the try that put him level with Gareth Thomas as Wales’ all-time top try scorer.
The following week was one that Shane described as “One of the strangest of my life”, preparing for the Grand Slam decider against France, also being a try of breaking the Welsh record- a touchdown that, as the script said it should, came to him at a crucial time in the match, as Shane lead Wales to victory in the Championship and took the gong for Player of the Six Nations with him. In his next two matches, against newly-crowned World Champions South Africa, Shane scored two outstanding individual tries, his 50-metre effort in the second test that involved him leaving then-IRB Player of the Year Bryan Habana for dead only narrowly missed out on IRB Try of the Year to a fantastic effort from Ireland’s own equivalent of Shane, Brian O’Driscoll. The pocket rocket then scored the third place try on the poll against Australia in another Welsh victory, having spotted a mismatch in midfield, putting in a lovely offload then eventually scoring in the corner after Jamie Roberts was stopped a few metres short. This was a year topped off by two individual accolades for Shane to go with his team triumphs, as he was named firstly BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year, then swooped to collect the biggest prize any rugby player can hope to get: The IRB International Player of the Year 2008.
On the 2009 Lions Tour Shane appeared in two more test matches and scored two tries in the third test, equalling the Lions record Vs South Africa set by fellow Welsh winger JJ Williams and England flanker Tom Croft and also being named Man of the Match. He stretched his try record this year with a fantastic individual score against Argentina as well as 5 other tries for Wales over the 12 month period.
Last year was yet another memorable one for Shane, as he broke Gareth Edwards’ Five/Six Nations Championship record with a last-minute try against France and continued to express himself with his trademark bursts and sidesteps, proving once more than he is the most exciting winger in world rugby as he was joint top-try scorer in the Six Nations with Ireland wing and fellow Osprey, Tommy Bowe. Fast forward to this year, and Shane faced more competition for his wing shirt than ever before, with the likes of George North, Leigh Halfpenny, Morgan Stoddart, Aled Brew and Will Harries all impressing as they raced to claim the 11 shirt once the inevitable happened, as everybody knew, from the start of the year, 2011 was to be Shane Williams’ last.
Originally planning to retire after the 2011 World Cup, Shane set about trying to make it a winning goodbye this year, scooping two tries during the Six Nations before getting injured playing against Ireland, and returning to score another try against England in the World Cup warm-up match a few months later, before the start of his final tournament. He starred against South Africa in a rousing Welsh defeat, before scoring the key try that won Wales the game against Samoa and then getting over the tryline again in the Quarter Final against Ireland after a knee injury that ruled him out of Wales’ pool victories over Fiji and Namibia. Then, two matches later, Shane set out in his final-ever World Cup match, and showed the legend he is after managing to get his boot to a bad pass from James Hook, improvising where so many wingers would let the ball go out and the opportunity die. Instead, showing the skills that lead him to the early success in Football, he managed to control the ball, pick it up and dive over for a try, before making a key run and throwing a great pass to Halfpenny that saw him score late on, a fitting end for a man who was not only a brilliant try-scorer, but entirely selfless. What has not been highlight in this article is the number of times he has created tries for others, the number of important passes he’s given and the amount of key tackles he’s made.
As a rugby player, Shane Williams was born ‘too small’. Tiny, insignificant and never going to get anywhere: That was Shane. But as a person, Shane Williams was born a hero. Guts, self-belief, drive and the bags of unending courage are what have got him this far. Shane is the perfect example of what somebody can be if they set their mind to it. He’s proof that anybody can be a marvel if they’re prepared to work hard enough. But, more than that, he’s proof that these said marvels can be so much more than freaks of nature. Shane Williams is inspiration, and that’s why we deserve the chance for him to inspire us one more time at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow…