Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

James Lawton: This was a big finish by the little genius – but is he the last of his kind?


Coming right at the end of both the match and an astonishing international career, it was the almost eerily appropriate departure of arguably the most relentessly mischievous gnome in the history of his or any other sport.

But then if you wanted another kind of measurement of the mystical impact of Shane Williams – 5ft 7in and 12 and a half stone – in 87 Test matches, it was provided by his tough but adoring coach Warren Gatland with just 10 minutes left.

Gatland, in a last reach to rescue a collision against Australia that was born of nothing more uplifting than corporate opportunism, replaced the imposing teenage wing George North with another candidate to fill the vacuum left so emotionally by the retiring Williams. North stands 6ft 4in and weighs 15st 6lb. The young man who took his place, Alex Cuthbert, is 6ft 6in and 16st 5lb.

After the last of Williams' glory, a 58th try of trademarked invention as the clock was counted down, Gatland dryly defined the nature of the little man's triumph over odds he first inherited in the cradle.

The coach said a rugby player needed skill, speed and size but of course in the case of this particular hero two out of three had proved an ultimately winning equation.

As Williams skipped past the Australian cover and performed a ground-level version of a fighter pilot's victory roll, the man beside me leapt to his feet, filled with nearly as much emotion as the hero himself and made a declaration that spoke eloquently for a stadium which had become resigned to anti-climax.

"Bloody marvellous," he said, and when the 34-year-old Shane Williams is old and grey he might well reflect warmly on the identity of one of his greatest admirers in the huge crowd. He may want to do this because it was Barry John.

Nearly 40 years after his own retirement, John is seen as maybe the most glorious expression of native Welsh rugby genius but of course, like Williams, he was no behemoth at 5ft 10in and barely 11st.

Maybe that had at least a little to do with the fervour of his celebration. As rugby gets bigger and stronger and so much heavier – and Wales appear so well placed to exploit the physiological trend with such as North and Jamie Roberts, Rhys Priestland, the inspiring young captain Sam Warburton and the phenomenally consistent Toby Faletau – perhaps there was also a hint of a lament. But for what, precisely, did John yearn, however subliminally?

Maybe it was just the tyranny of the clock and the changes it brings, in this case the possibility that players of Williams' inherent brilliance but diminutive stature have never found it so hard to make the kind of mark so unerringly established by folk heroes like Cliff Morgan, Phil Bennett and Jonathan Davies.

Apart from the joyous expression of his talent to run at and deceive the most rigorous of defences, Williams reminded us once again of his ability to shut down moments of extreme danger, most notably when he foiled Australia's hard-charging wing Lachie Turner. Williams had no thought for the past or a perhaps diminished future when he forced Turner into touch at the corner flag.

When he ran in his try so irresistibly, the best of him once again unfurled before your eyes. One of the greatest of his achievements is that, when a young Wales have excited such belief in their possibilities, Williams can be credited with so regularly reminding the nation of what was achieved in the past and what might just be recaptured.

The parting gift of Shane Williams carried the inestimable worth of, one last time, moving the spirit of a nation. If you doubt this for a second, you cannot have been standing at the other side of Barry John.