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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 29 March, 2020

'It's difficult when you concede 20 or 30 kgs to an opponent': Would Shane Williams make it in modern rugby?

Wales’ record try-scorer came late to the sport, but set it alight.

HE MAY HAVE only retired for good last month, but Shane Williams already feels like a throwback to a different age in rugby union.

Resting back on a chair in a Dublin boardroom, still sporting that beard, he finishes typing an email on his phone while seats are taken up around him. For one newspaper journalist, he’s blended in to the crowd, ‘where’s Shane going to sit?’

Shane Williams Rugby fans who check in to their local pub on the Guinness Plus app this Saturday 14th March as Ireland take on Wales will be in with the opportunity of winning a VIP trip to Ireland’s final RBS Six Nations game against Scotland next weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Shane’s sitting comfortably, ready to chat for the best part of an hour.

Williams’ story just doesn’t seem credible the way modern rugby is set up. Not quite a coal-miner’s son, his family tradition was none-the-less steeped in black dust. Until he was recruited by Neath at 19, his sporting time in the Amman Valley (south-west of the Brecon Beacons) was divided between playing scrum-half for Amman United, the left side of Cwmamman United’s attack and working part-time.

“I never took rugby seriously in school. I was told I was too small which, up to my international career, was the story of my life. Played on the B team in school, played a lot of soccer, then played a season for Amman United RFC…

We played in the Cup and we managed to get through and play Swansea in the season I played. We scored the first try and were 5-0 up in the first few minutes — I think we lost 100-5.”

“…I went on to train with Neath from there and them to play for Wales within two years.”

Maybe it could happen now. Coaches and talent-finding programmes would love to think that the individual skills would still shine through: that a burst of pace, an eye for a gap, an even greater eye for the try-line would be valued as highly as ever. But the analytics in modern rugby would be screaming in the other side of their ears: ‘He’s 5′ 7″, under 12 stone. He won’t hack it’.

“I didn’t enjoy the physicality to be honest with you. It makes it difficult for you when you are conceding 20 or 30 kgs to your opponents. Especially in the contact area when you’re trying to tackle these players, or else getting tackled yourself.

Rugby Union - Autumn International - Wales v Australia - Millennium Stadium Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“I certainly hope, and the neutrals will hope, that the smaller player can continue to survive in the game. I watched Craig Gilroy play for Ulster against the Dragons and he did very well for a player who’s not the biggest. He’s quite evasive and quick on his feet.

“The problem is that players are getting bigger, but they’re also just as quick and athletic, if not even faster these days. And they’re more effective on the rugby field which is why they are getting selected – that’s the way teams are winning international games, being the most physical and most effective at getting over the gain-line — and you can’t see any coaches in world rugby right now wanting to change that.”

Source: GuinnessEurope/YouTube

Wales’ record try-scorer thinks for few seconds before he admits that it’s been a while, too long, since a game of rugby left him feeling a spectators’ enjoyment.

“I’ve been entertained in parts of games,” he offers, but defence and kick-driven matches don’t do it for him. With Wales playing host in a seismic Six Nations clash this weekend, the subject obviously takes him to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

Williams, however, isn’t bemoaning the entertainment value to detract from Ireland’s success, he just wants to see a more expansive game. He can still appreciate the thought process behind Schmidt’s detail-powered plan of attack.

Joe Schmidt is one of the best tacticians I’ve certainly seen as a coach. What Ireland are doing at the moment is effective and is working. Coming off a 10-game winning streak, if it’s not broke why fix it?”

He adds: “Sexton is key to Ireland’s success. It is easier said than done that you have to keep Sexton quiet but these are the tactics you must have. You have to put him under pressure.

“You have to make sure the service to Conor Murray isn’t the best. Tactically, you have to be better than the opposition. Again, easier said than done. That is why Schmidt is so good. Tactically, you were always up against it.

“It is going to be tough but we’re going to have to wait and see what happens on Saturday.”

Rugby Union - RBS 6 Nations Championship 2005 - Wales v Ireland - Millennium Stadium Shane Williams celebrates Kevin Morgan's try against Ireland as Wales secure a Grand Slam in 2005. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Even though the game already seems like a new animal to the one he left behind, Williams is licking his lips like the rest of us at the prospect. The sport changes, players and styles move on. The man known simply as Shane (no surname necessary) in his native country will instead look forward to lacing up his boots again for Amman United, though not in a ferocious, intense atmosphere of marginal-gain rugby.

“I literally walk the dogs past the field every day. I made the mistake of telling someone before that I would love to go back and play with my brother and my mates again.

Next thing you know, the local press have got it that I am playing that Saturday against Gorseinon, which is Leigh Halfpenny’s local club. Leigh then Tweeted me and asked, ‘Are you playing on Saturday against my boys?’

“I would love to go back and play a charity match for them one day and play alongside my brother. I have only done that once so if I could do it again, that would be great.”

The game would be only too glad to have him back.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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