Rugby Union: Rewards for Williams' labours

Paul Trow talks to the hooker in exile who will feel at home in Wales today
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The Independent Online
IF A few eyebrows were raised when Barry Williams was named in the Lions party which toured South Africa last summer, even more shot upwards when he was passed over after Keith Wood was invalided out of the third and final Test.

Since scoring a try on his debut for Wales against France 14 months ago, though, the 23-year-old hooker has become all too familiar with such selectorial paradoxes. For the rest of last season his international ambitions were frustrated because he played in the same position as the then Welsh captain, Jonathan Humphreys, while Garin Jenkins and Robin McBryde also seemed to be ahead of him in the queue.

Then the Lions management plucked him from obscurity and he was ultimately unlucky not to be rewarded for his passionate approach and dogged play on tour with a Test cap. Now at least he is back in favour with the Welsh selectors and, after another try-scoring appearance in the 70-21 win over Romania in August, Williams wins his third cap this afternoon against Tonga in Swansea.

"I've got more experience thanks to the Lions tour and hopefully I can establish myself with Wales," said Williams who moved clubs during the summer from Neath to Richmond. "The fact that Jonathan was captain probably was a barrier to me, but now I'm in the team and he's on the bench." Last summer was a turning point for Williams for other reasons as well - he got married after the Lions tour and recently bought a house in the Surrey stockbroker belt.

"I'd been living in a hotel since May so it was nice to get settled at last. A lot of the Welsh boys live around there - it's known as 'Mini- Cardiff'. There are seven Welsh internationals at Richmond and we spend a lot of spare time together doing things like playing golf. My golf is garbage. All front-row boys think they can hit the ball but it never goes straight. There's a great team spirit at Richmond. Ashley Levett [the club's backer] is a good guy to have around. He's a normal person who just happens to have a lot of money. To meet him you wouldn't know he's as rich as he is.

"The standard in the first division is much higher than in Welsh club rugby. Every match is a battle whereas in Wales you played maybe five hard games a season and the rest were a waste of time. I still always look for Neath's result but the lack of money in Wales is very sad. It's not just Neath, everyone's struggling. That's why I'm here."

A year ago, Williams worked as a farm labourer and ran a company selling safety wear. Now he has a contract said to be worth pounds 500,000 which ties him to Richmond for five years with the option of a further 12 months. "At my age I'm looking to play for another 10 years and then perhaps retire to a smallholding back in my home town of Llandovery. I wouldn't want a big farm or anything that would involve hard work - just something I could treat as a hobby. I'm a country boy at heart. There's nothing I like more than walking my dog in open fields."

Williams joined Neath at 19 and had four seasons with them. "I got into the team after two games because the first-choice hooker was away at a wedding. He never got his place back. I've been a hooker since I was 15. Before that I was a flanker but I switched when I realised I wasn't going to be tall enough."

Nevertheless, the back-row forward's running and handling skills helped to make Williams a key member of the Lions squad in South Africa. "I wouldn't say I was surprised to be picked for the Lions because I felt I should have played for Wales last season. I was always mentioned as an outsider but the Lions were planning to play a fast, open game and that suited me. I like to run with the ball.

"I was very disappointed I didn't play in the third Test but that experience will make me a stronger person." Ironically, he lost out at Ellis Park to the England hooker Mark Regan with whom he had had a much- publicised training-ground spat earlier in the tour. Two front rows were preparing to pack down against each other when Williams' trio went in a little too quickly. The Welshman's head crashed into Regan's chest, prompting a fiery reaction.

"Mark and I are the best of friends now," said Williams, unconvincingly. "But if you look at the video of the incident you'll see that it clears me. Anyway, there's always going to be healthy competition for places between players." As Jonathan Humphreys is now discovering.