There were 22 Shane Williamses in the Welsh team room yesterday, which must be of huge concern to the Australian backs, but perhaps not to their forwards who might finally be confident of winning a few scrums. But before the Wallabies wobble too much with nerves/excitement it should be pointed out that 21 of those internationals were wearing masks.
The one who wasn't was appropriately red-faced as he recounted the goings-on of what Warren Gatland termed "Shane Williams Day". "Embarrassing, that's what it's been," said Williams, with a headshake and a smile. "Warren's been on about what he was going to do for a while, but I thought he was pulling my leg. So I've turned up this morning, they've all got those daft masks on – Warren's a bit too keen on wearing his for my liking – and they've converted the team room into a shrine, with photos of me everywhere and a video montage of my tries. I even went for a pee and there was a picture of me above the urinal. It's been the strangest day of my career, by far."
From the look of him at the team hotel it had also been one of the most emotional. The tracks of his tears are likely to become canyons by the time the week is over. On Saturday, the 34-year-old with the dancing feet and the double-jointed ankles will play for Wales for the last time. In truth, this is not "Shane Williams Day" but "Shane Williams Week". The WRU is forecasting a 74,000 sell-out and it would be no exaggeration to suggest many will be there simply to pay homage. That is how big this little man from the Amman Valley has become.
A 5ft 7in magician, who in his own tiny way, is as much a freak as Jonah Lomu. A player written off as too small who did not just forge himself a career, but a mammoth one at that, breaking the Welsh try-scoring record and, in 2008, being named the World Player of the Year. Once they shouted "give it to the ballboy" but so soon they screamed "give it to Shane". Little wonder the Welsh squad and, indeed, their grizzled coach hold him in such affection. "We wanted to do something special for him," said Gatland, when he eventually consented to remove the mask. "We've had his family and friends in for lunch, which was great for him and for them. I even got Shane to announce the team, this morning."
"He did," confirmed Williams. "And we had a bit of fun with the squad pretending that Warren actually let me pick the side. That's one of the things I'll miss most – the mickey-taking, the camaraderie. It was has been a really, really nice day."
Nice, but poignant. "Yeah, I suppose when I do lie on my bed tonight it will all sink in, 'This is it, this is my last week with Wales'," he said. "There is that sadness gnawing away in the background, but I'm more excited than upset. I've been given this opportunity to say goodbye and I'm thankful for it. I'm going to have a great day and I'm determined to go out with a bang, to play my best, to win with Wales and to go out on a high."
Of course, if Williams does rise to the occasion – and expect him to, as he invariably has whenever the spotlight has glared in his eyes – the question will go up: "Why retire Shane?" Yesterday, Gatland revealed that far from being a ceremonial selection, Williams, despite being nine years older than anyone else in the backline, was the first on the teamsheet, such has been his form in the World Cup and since. "That's the way I wanted my story to finish really," said Williams. "It's not that I'm turning my back on my country, that there's some hidden agenda. I'm a very proud Welshman. It's just in my heart I believe this is the time. That's all it is. Yes, there's [David] Campese's [international] try record [64 to Williams's 59] and the chance of getting to 100 caps [Williams has 86]. But I'd be devastated if I tried to do that and I spent two years scoring one try. That's not what I'm about. I've always done things on my own terms and I want to end it on my own terms. It'd be great to go out at the top."
So long as he doesn't finish as he started. His first touch in international rugby was to chuck an interception for Emile Ntamack to run 70 yards and score under the posts. That was in 2000, when he was 11st and as green as all of the valleys put together. Said Williams: "At that moment I thought, 'Right I've had my cap, fair enough, I'll see you later'." They did see him later. And in their dreams after that, as well.
This has been an incredible journey, "a rollercoaster" as Williams inevitably calls it. Thrown side to side by coaches and opponents alike, Williams has been hurtled to the bottom of the ride, where he gripped on, pinned back his head and made the steep ascent. At one stage the injuries almost outnumbered the doubters, but now the bones are as kindly as his many admirers. Why? Because Shane Williams decided to be Shane Williams again. Not the bulked-up version. "When I realised that, I never looked back," he said.
The great individual, however, has always remained a team man. It is not just his size which precluded him from entering a dwarf-throwing competition. Wales have come first and his nation will remain first until the final whistle blows on Saturday. "This won't be Shane Williams versus Australia – it will be Wales versus Australia," he said. "I don't want the emotion of my final game to cloud that. It's about going out there as a collective and showing that we've moved on from the World Cup. What makes it easier to retire is looking at all the young lads coming though and seeing their confidence and conviction. There is no intimidation whatsoever."
Very probably it was fear which drove Williams on. But now, as the curtain hovers, only one alarm bell rings. "I'll tell you what I'm most dreading – crying in front of millions of people," he said. "I'm not going to be all macho and say I won't. If we win, if we beat Australia, with my wife and two children there... yeah, I'm bound to shed a tear. I just hope everyone will forgive me if I do." They will. For there's only one Shane Williams. Masks or no masks.
'I felt invincible': Williams' career in his own words
"I know it was coming off a terrible World Cup but in the 2007-2008 season I never felt so good, so fit and so sharp and that sticks out. As a player you won't get many times when you think, 'I couldn't be any fitter, faster and stronger'. I felt invincible. The bounce of the ball almost seemed to land in my pocket; if there was an opportunity I would take it. In that Six Nations I was on the end of almost all the moves (such as against Italy). Then I went out to play the world champions in South Africa and I probably played even better. And everything that came with it – the Six Nations award [best player of the tournament], the IRB Award [World Player of the year]... overwhelming really."
"In 2002 I tried to become a player I wasn't – and paid the price. A lot had been said about my size and strength and I took it to heart. Over a pre-season I tried to put weight on, tried to become a bigger, physical player and it backfired. I was injured quite often and when I did play I was too heavy and too cumbersome. I lost form and lost my Wales place. That is when I decided I couldn't please everyone. I focused on playing the rugby I wanted to play and be the player I wanted to be. Since then I've done things on my own terms and played my own brand and style of rugby. It hasn't always worked – nobody's perfect. But that's the way I am."