Shane Williams is rightly celebrated as one of the most instinctive rugby players of his generation – given that he is routinely bracketed with Ken Jones, Gerald Davies, J J Williams and Ieuan Evans as a Welsh wing worthy of canonisation, we can make that any generation – so when he found himself questioning his instincts in Japan last Saturday night, he felt utterly discombobulated.
"I'd just finished playing and was asleep in my hotel room when Rob Howley [the Lions attack coach] phoned me – it must have been around midnight – to tell me I was wanted in Australia," he said yesterday, a few minutes after his one and only proper training session ahead of the tourists' difficult game with the ACT Brumbies, the crack Super 15 team who may well win this season's southern hemisphere provincial title. "I'd been having trouble sleeping anyway, so the call didn't help in that regard. After the conversation I just lay there thinking: 'Did that really happen?'
"But as I slowly began to get my head around it, I just felt happy that it wasn't a wind-up. The thought of being a part of the tour against every expectation… there was no way on earth I was going to say 'no' to helping out.
"If I'd thought for one second that I wasn't capable of doing this, that I wasn't good enough any more, I'd have told Rob to stick it. As it is, I'm only too happy to be involved."
The Lions coaches were sitting in the bar of their hotel in Sydney late on Saturday night when they agreed to place the call to Japan, where Williams has been enjoying a last professional hurrah with the Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Sagamihara, a part of Greater Tokyo, following his retirement from top-level rugby last year. A couple of hours earlier, during the comprehensive five-try victory over the New South Wales Waratahs, the coaches had lost their first-choice centre Jamie Roberts to a hamstring injury. As they were already down on numbers in the wing positions, they felt they had no choice but to take a series of punts on reinforcements.
Out went summonses to Christian Wade, the profoundly inexperienced England back, and the tough red-rose centre Brad Barritt, a more worldy-wise sort whose domestic season with Saracens had ended prematurely when he picked up an injury on Heineken Cup semi-final day in early May. Wade had just won his first international cap against Argentina in Salta and was preparing for a second Test appearance in Buenos Aires. Barritt was on holiday with his wife in Los Angeles. "Luckily, I had a gumshield in my lavatory bag," he said yesterday.
Williams? He was in a whole different place, mentally as much as geographically. He had long planned to be in Australia for this weekend's opening meeting between the Lions and the Wallabies in Brisbane, but only as a radio analyst. That remains the plan, but three vintage tries against the Brumbies today could lead to a sudden recalculation on the grandest of sporting scales. Not that he sees it that way at the moment.
"I doubt there will be any change of thinking," said the 36-year-old. "I'm certainly not thinking of staying on after this one game. But, to be honest with you, this has come as such a surprise I don't know what I'm thinking.
"This new Lions back line won't click straight away, that's for sure: it will take a little time to find an understanding, to work out the angles people like to run and how they like to do things. But there's no reason to complicate matters. Rugby is a fairly basic game when you come down to it, and anyway, I've never been one to go by patterns and rules."Reuse content