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Dublin: 2°C Monday 12 April 2021

'Some days it wasn't good enough, other days it was, but every day I gave it my all'

Duncan Williams reflects on a professional rugby career during which he made 163 appearances for Munster.

WHEN MUNSTER OPENED their 2018-19 Champions Cup campaign with a difficult away game at Exeter Chiefs, one man in particular grasped the opportunity to enhance his reputation.

Injuries to Conor Murray and Alby Mathewson opened the door for Duncan Williams, whose display belied his status as a makeshift member of the team.

munsters-duncan-williams Munster's Duncan Williams gets a pass away against Exeter Chiefs. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

When he met the press afterwards, head coach Johann van Graan hailed the “excellent” contribution of Williams to a valuable result at Sandy Park.

In a Munster career that by then had amounted to 159 appearances, the 10-10 draw with the Premiership side undoubtedly marked one of the good days for Williams — and there were more of those than he was ever given credit for.

With a home game against Gloucester to follow seven days later, the 32-year-old could look forward to arriving for training on Monday morning with his confidence boosted by what he produced 48 hours earlier.

However, the week didn’t unfold in the manner he had envisaged. 

“To be told on the Monday that you’re being let go, I wasn’t exactly in the greatest headspace trying to play that Gloucester match,” Williams admits.

“My head was a bit all over the shop. It wasn’t a great week. It wasn’t ideal preparation, but I was born and raised in Munster and I was playing alongside my friends, so I was never not going to give it my best.

“There are some people who will probably say I was riding my luck for years anyway, so maybe my time had come.”

In the same week that Williams was informed his contract wouldn’t be renewed at the end of the season, Munster announced Nick McCarthy’s imminent arrival from Leinster. Neil Cronin’s stock was also rising, and there are high hopes too for young Craig Casey.

Having so often been looked upon favourably when his deal approached its expiry date, Williams was now the collateral damage in an increasingly competitive area for Munster.

duncan-williams Williams started a game for Munster for the final time in the win against Gloucester. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Almost nine years since his debut, the 36-22 win over Gloucester turned out to be his final start for Munster. He had to be content with three substitute cameos in the Guinness Pro14 for the remainder of his final season.

After completing a day’s work in his new role with Kepak, Williams meets The42 for a coffee near his home in Cork before picking his son up from creche. 

Over the course of a 40-minute conversation, he reveals himself to be courteous, funny and forthright — the type of guy it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking an immediate dislike to.

His level of effort on the pitch could never be faulted either, yet his amiable disposition and undeniable commitment to Munster’s cause weren’t sufficient to spare him from the criticism of some of the province’s fans.

He recalls team meetings from his days as a novice in the squad, when he’d wish the ground would open up and swallow him whole as his errors were highlighted in the company of players of the stature of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara.

Those experiences taught him the importance of having a thick skin when his ability on the rugby pitch was being evaluated. The constructive appraisal of a performance has therefore never been something he has taken issue with.

The difficulties arose when the nature of the messages from the stands and social media crossed the line that separates fiery encouragement from odious derision.

While he gave more credence to the assessments of the four head coaches who deemed him worthy of new contracts, empty vessels were often loudest when the abuse became malicious and personal.

duncan-williams Williams made his Munster breakthrough in 2009. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Williams admits there were plenty of occasions when his performances fell below the standards he set for himself. However, there were also days when he was a convenient fall guy in a team whose supporters have generally been spoiled by the calibre of the occupants of their number nine shirt.

“While I was with Munster, they pretty much always had the starting scrum-half for Ireland,” he explains. “I never claimed to be able to do anything better than Conor Murray. I was my own player and I had my own approach to the game.

“People seemed to get bogged down in the fact that if he wasn’t playing, they wanted me to be Conor reincarnated. I’m five-feet-nine, he’s six-feet-two. He’s 90 kilos, I’m 79 or 80 kilos. It’s not like I can do the same things he can do. You’re talking about one of the best in the world.

“The older I got, the more I realised that there are more important things in life than what some gobshite is saying behind a keyboard. When I was younger, when the lads would go out to sign autographs I’d stay in the dressing room. As far as I was concerned, I could turn the corner and someone might give me a bit of grief.

“What I found remarkable was that they’d often have pictures of their kids in their profile pictures on social media, calling themselves a ‘proud father of two’ or whatever. If their kids go on to play professional sport, I hope they never have a mishap or a bad game and then get slaughtered for it on the internet.

“I never intentionally went out and had a bad game. Some days it wasn’t good enough, other days it was, but every day I gave it my all. I’m not the first person to go through that and I won’t be the last.

“There are a lot of aspects that contribute to someone not playing well in a game. You might not feel fresh after a heavy week of training, maybe you got your diet wrong, the other team might just play particularly well and have you on the back foot. As a scrum-half, it’s not an easy game to play when you’re on the back foot.

“I’m not saying that happened every time, but it does happen, especially away in places like Cardiff, Glasgow, Scarlets, all tough places to go. Rugby isn’t easy. If it was, there’d be more than 200 people contracted in the country.”

duncan-williams-consoles-an-injured-conor-murray Replacing Conor Murray during the 2015 Pro12 semi-final against Ospreys. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For Williams, the challenge of dealing with the flak that was levelled at him was compounded by his concern over his family being within earshot.

“My wife and my parents would be at the games, and I just used to hope that they were in a section where they couldn’t hear anything bad,” he says. “I have no doubt that they have heard stuff over the years but they’ve never said it to me.

“Sometimes after we’d play on a Friday, my wife would want to go out and do something on the Saturday and I’d be trying to come up with excuses not to go out in case I’d bump into someone in the street. You don’t want to lock yourself away but you’d be half-dreading it sometimes.

“I remember one incident when we played up at Connacht around New Year’s Eve a few years ago. I think we had a nine-day turnaround after the game so myself and a few of the other lads decided to stay up and go out for a few drinks with the wives and girlfriends.

“In the morning, myself and my wife went out for breakfast in Galway and we were being shown to our seats. There were two Munster fans there and one of them said ‘well done, good game’ or whatever, so I said ‘thanks’.

“Anyway, when we came out later I got a phonecall from one of the lads, saying that the person who said ‘well done’ was actually one of the people who had been giving me shit on Twitter. The person even put up a photo on Twitter of me and my wife having breakfast, saying something like — obviously sarcastically — ‘here’s my best friend sitting next to me at breakfast’.

“To be honest, you’d actually feel sorry for a person carrying on like that. There’s something not right when someone is behaving that way. Whether these people are just very unhappy in their own lives or something, I don’t know, but I suppose it’s an unfortunate aspect of playing sport and being a bit in the public eye.”

Williams played 163 times over 10 seasons with Munster. He can justifiably peruse his CV with a considerable sense of pride, but what was it that prevented him from becoming a player who could contend for first-choice status and international recognition? 

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duncan-williams 'You don't want to lock yourself away but you'd be half-dreading it sometimes.' Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Between the ages of 19 and 25, I was probably out injured for a total of three or four seasons. Tony McGahan [former Munster head coach] used to always say that not training was hindering my development. I used to think it wasn’t, but those training hours are massively important at that age. It affected me in terms of fitness and physical development, and if you’re not practising your skills on the pitch, it’s hard.

“Back then as well it was different. Injured players are very well looked after now. They have a return-to-play protocol and skills sessions or whatever. It used to be a case that when you were injured you were kind of on your own schedule. It got better as the years went on, but when I got injured originally it was different. You can’t get back those hours on the pitch to perfect your skills.

“I couldn’t kick after training because my groins were so bad for years. I’d just be able to get through the session and then I’d have to get off the pitch because I wouldn’t be able to do any more, whether it was because of my groins or my back and stuff.

“Having said that, I was injured a lot during those years and then I didn’t really have any injuries for six or seven years when I played most of my games, so I was lucky from that point of view.”

Williams says he hasn’t yet begun to reminisce in great detail about his fondest days in the Munster shirt. Hugo, his 18-month-old boy, is due to become a big brother in the new year. When they’re old enough to appreciate the significance, he’ll tell his kids about his debut against Connacht on St Stephen’s Day in 2009, the win against the Wallabies, the 2015 Pro12 semi-final against Ospreys and the Champions Cup quarter-final of 2017 against Toulouse — the kind of days when even his most fervent detractors were short of ammunition. 

“What am I most proud of? I suppose the fact that I never gave up. There were times when it would have been easy to walk away — you’re third or fourth in the pecking order and you’re not getting picked — but I never gave up. I’d be a competitive person, I don’t like to lose and I don’t like to admit when I’m beaten. I always kept going.”

When he made a try-scoring contribution to Cork Constitution’s win over Clontarf at the Aviva Stadium in May, Williams intended for the AIL Division 1A decider to mark his final act as a rugby player. It would have been a nice way to bookend his career.

“That’s how I was thinking at the time. But I’m still playing for Con now. I said I’d give it one more year so that I can make sure I go out by enjoying my rugby rather than finishing on a negative.”

duncan-williams-celebrates-with-his-son-hugo Duncan Williams with his son Hugo after Cork Con's AIL triumph in May. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As for how he’ll be remembered, Williams wants his reputation to be shaped by the men he shared a dressing room with.

“I’m not too concerned about what fans think of me, to be honest. It’s more about the fellas I played alongside. I think they appreciate that I always gave 100% and that I was a good team player, reliable, and that I always had their backs. That’s the main thing for me.”

A tribute paid by captain Peter O’Mahony following Williams’ departure from Munster suggests that he’ll get his wish: “The ultimate professional, utterly gifted, incredible player and a great friend. One of the fellas you always wanted to be in the same team as.”

His career in professional rugby may now be at an end, but social media is still occasionally a source of hassle — although in this instance he can see the amusing side of it.

“I keep getting tweets from people that are meant for this guy,” Williams says of an African Archbishop with whom he shares a name. “Apparently he’s as unpopular as I was so there’s a load of grief being directed at me.

“Even when I’m trying to do God’s work I can’t win with some people!”

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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