In from the cold and on the loose: Williams roars again

Martyn Williams turned down the Welsh captaincy before the last World Cup, then lost his Test place. Chris Hewett hears how a quiet dragon regained his fire
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Gavin Henson considers himself a reluctant celebrity, yet he prances around the paddock like a preening parade horse - shaven legs, spiked hair, a range of glitzy footwear that would have left Imelda Marcos smouldering with envy - and positively revels in the newspaper chit-chat about his love life. Shane Williams insists he is "a private person", yet goes about his work with the unbridled chutzpah of a born exhibitionist. If these people are as shy and retiring as they make out, there are no words in the language to describe the senior Williams in the Welsh team.

Gavin Henson considers himself a reluctant celebrity, yet he prances around the paddock like a preening parade horse - shaven legs, spiked hair, a range of glitzy footwear that would have left Imelda Marcos smouldering with envy - and positively revels in the newspaper chit-chat about his love life. Shane Williams insists he is "a private person", yet goes about his work with the unbridled chutzpah of a born exhibitionist. If these people are as shy and retiring as they make out, there are no words in the language to describe the senior Williams in the Welsh team.

"Ego is not a four-letter word," said the American disc jockey Don Steele. Martyn Williams, the red-haired flanker from the Cardiff Blues whose performances in this Six Nations Championship have put him within reach of a second tour with the British and Irish Lions, would heartily disagree. If ever a rugby player hid his light under a bushel, Williams did shortly before the last World Cup, when he was offered the national captaincy. Quietly and politely, he declined - a decision that might easily have cost him his Test career and denied Wales the services of a loose forward now operating at maximum productivity.

"I didn't think I was the right person for the job, and told them so," he recalled this week. "When I looked around me, I saw people I felt were far more suited to the role. Colin Charvis, for one. I didn't see any comparison between him and me in terms of leadership potential, and I was genuinely happy when Colin was asked to do it. I regretted it later, of course. Eight months down the road, I was out of the starting line-up, kicking my heels on the bench. I remember thinking to myself then: 'Martyn, that wasn't the brightest move.'"

Much to the surprise of England - and, quite conceivably, to their huge relief - Williams was dropped from the Welsh XV for the World Cup quarter-final in Brisbane, although he played the last 21 minutes off the bench and scored a consolation try in the closing seconds. A few months later he was out on his ear again, omitted from the 2004 summer tour squad by the newly appointed coach, Mike Ruddock.

"That one hurt," he admitted. "I knew there were a lot of good young players coming through and I thought I was being pushed out." It was not the case, of course.

"That's typical Martyn, that is," said Alan Phillips, the team manager, with a roll of the eyes. "When something like that happens, he immediately thinks: 'That's it, ginger's out of fashion.' He tends to believe the worst. The thing is, Martyn had played three years of rugby virtually without a break - and hard rugby too, in teams that were going through difficult times. He'd lost his impact, quite frankly, and he needed the time and space to rediscover it. After three months in the gym, he came back fitter and stronger, and with his appetite renewed. He's playing beautifully now, and we're all delighted for him."

Still on the springtime side of 30, for another six months at least, Williams has 53 caps to his name and is playing the rugby of the gods from the breakaway flank of the Welsh scrum. No one seriously doubts that he will fly to New Zealand with the Lions at the end of May, and if he continues in his current vein, his roaming support work and footballing brilliance could well push him towards a Test place, ahead of the Irish ruck-burglar Johnny O'Connor and the hard-tackling English candidate Lewis Moody. He can expect a sympathetic hearing from Andy Robinson, who will be among Sir Clive Woodward's principal henchmen in New Zealand. During his time at Bath, England's current head coach shifted heaven and earth to sign Williams from Pontypridd, not least because he reminded Robinson of his younger self. He was whistling in the wind, as it turned out, but he still describes the Welshman as "quality".

The All Blacks will have Richie McCaw at No 7, and McCaw is the best in the business by a country mile. At the last World Cup, the Wallabies effectively acknowledged that he was twice as good as anyone else by fielding two specialist open-side flankers, George Smith and Phil Waugh, as a means of cramping his style. Depending on the tactics Woodward decides to employ, Williams could single-handedly counter the Canterbury man by setting an agenda of his own. Can he really be that good? Yes, if recent evidence is to be believed. Unofficial man of the match against England, official man of the match against Italy, a double try- scorer against France ... as hot streaks go, this one is close to molten.

Williams is buying none of it, though. Not yet, at least. "Let's face it," he said. "When we started preparing for this tournament, I had 'replacement' written all over me. No question about it. Had Colin not injured his foot when he did, they'd have gone with him and Dafydd Jones on the flanks against England. I would have had no issue with it - Colin is a world-class player, and he was performing at somewhere near his best at club level - but the fact remains, doesn't it? Before the Six Nations started, I was concentrating all my efforts on making it into the match-day squad.

"Things have changed so quickly, in all directions. Two years ago, we were beaten in Italy - what a desperate day that was - and went on to lose all five championship matches. Now, we're four from four and chasing a Slam, a situation in which I honestly believed I'd never find myself. I thought I'd be a part of a lost generation of Welsh rugby, a member of one of those teams who upset the odds now and again but struggled to string two performances together. Just look at us now. And to a large extent, it's the same players who have turned it around. Gareth Thomas, Rhys Williams, Tom Shanklin, Dwayne Peel, Mefin Davies, Robert Sidoli, Michael Owen ... they all played in that match in Rome."

So what was it that made the earth move? "We got ourselves fit," Williams replied, without a second's thought. "I'm fitter than I've ever been. I've even put on a couple of kilograms through the weights programme, which is unheard of. Look, I'm not big enough to go round smashing guys into the middle of next week" - he weighs 15st 6lb and stands not an inch over 6ft - "and by the same yardstick, the Welsh players as a whole are not Englishmen or South Africans. We can't hope to dominate games in the physical sense - not the way they do, at any rate - because we're simply not built on that scale, so there's no point trying to play rugby their way. We have to play to our traditional strengths, to live on our wits and put some width on the ball. To do that at a high tempo, you have to be fit.

"For the first time since I've been involved, we're in a position to do it. If your conditioning is just a touch below what it should be and you try to play a really quick game, you invariably find that things break down at the crucial moments. When that happens, your confidence begins to slip and you end up in a mess. Back in 2003, we were too scared to try anything after losing to the Italians. But in this tournament, our conditioning has been spot on and our confidence levels have risen with each game. Those two elements combined make all the difference in the world.

"And of course, it suits me down to the ground. From my perspective, the wider we play, the better it gets. My game has always been about support and continuity, so there's no great mystery as to why I'm catching the eye and being talked about all of a sudden. The bread and butter stuff still has to be done by the tight forwards, obviously, but they're performing so well at present that every game is an open-side flanker's dream. The gainline is being crossed so often, I can just pick a shoulder to come off, and hey ... I'm away."

This afternoon, Williams goes toe to toe with O'Connor in what many see as a final eliminator for the right to travel to New Zealand as the Lions' first-choice No 7. Williams was always up against it on his last Lions trip, to Australia in 2001, for his rivals included both Charvis and Neil Back, probably the most insanely competitive flanker in living memory. Sure enough, the Leicester man started all the games that mattered - against Queensland and New South Wales, plus all three Tests against the Wallabies. Williams ended the tour uncapped and unfulfilled.

Should Wales win today, fulfilment will no longer be an issue. "You know, I've spent years watching England challenge for the big prizes and envying the hell out of them," Williams admitted. "Now, I know how it feels. Part of me says that win, lose or draw, we'll look back on this season with pride. But a bigger part of me says that winning is the only thing that matters. As long as we keep our heads and hold our nerve, we'll take some beating."

Man-to-man the key battles

Tom Shanklin v Brian O'Driscoll

Shanklin is one of the form players of the tournament: a big, tough, straight-running centre with an eye for the main chance. O'Driscoll is one of the world's form players, irrespective of how he is playing at any given moment. The Ireland captain did not show the best of himself during much of last weekend's game with France, yet still made the finish of the championship to put the wind up the Tricolores. Most centres trade on mismatches in open play - a clear run at some spherical prop or lumbering lock. When O'Driscoll is running hot, every match is a mismatch. Shanklin knows what is coming to him. Can he deal with it?

Brent Cockbain v Paul O'Connell

Has O'Connell gone quiet on us, just at the wrong moment? At the start of this Six Nations, the aggressive second-row enforcer from Munster was considered a certainty for the Lions Test team in New Zealand this summer. If he did not look like Martin Johnson, he was sure as hell playing like him. But O'Connell was outplayed by England's Danny Grewcock in Dublin, and did not cut much ice against Fabien Pelous a week ago. Cockbain, on the other hand, is letting rip. Lean, mean and moody, he is the engine under the bonnet of the Welsh pack. Another big performance today will give the Lions selectors something to ponder.

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