Shane Williams: World beater

The player of the year favourite tells James Corrigan why facing the All Blacks on Saturday is rekindling some fond memories
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Such are the 24/7 demands on the modern rugby union international, with one season ending at 11.59pm and the next beginning all of one minute later, that players should not have the time, energy or inclination to indulge in any looking back. But forgive Shane Williams if he allows himself a few brief moments of nostalgia this weekend.

For starters the All Blacks are in town and it was against this bunch of ravenous reputation-wreckers that the wing who had long been confused with the ball boy, actually had the temerity to make his name. And for seconds, the once overlooked try-scoring machine, who has twice been on the verge of packing it all in, is the favourite to be named the International Rugby Board's "World Player of the Year" on Sunday. It has all come together quite nicely for the player who will no longer have to be content with simply being known as "the hottest wing north of Habana".

Speaking at the Wales team hotel this week, Williams, the team player, manfully tried to play down the pertinence of his weekend as he toed the party line as skilfully as he does the touchline. "Look, it could be a big few days for all of us," was his way of putting it, although the trademark smirk said it all. "I suppose playing New Zealand will always be special to me. Put it this way, five years on and we're still talking about it."

In truth, there will be the red-shirted sentimentalists still jabbering about it in half a century never mind in half a decade and so they should because something stirred in that Sydney night air, something deep in Wales and something even deeper in Shane. Whatever glory was to follow – Grand Slams, try records and now, apparently, this global honour – can be traced back to that day of zero expectation at the Telstra Stadium.

Williams has always been keen to point out "that we actually lost that match 53-37" although in his recently published autobiography, Shane: My Story, he admits: "For Wales it wasn't about the result: it was about showing the rugby world that we were back after a couple of years in the doldrums; it was about winning back our self-respect and proving we could still play the game." Nobody embodied that belligerent ethos more emphatically than the No 11. "When I walked off that field I felt I had proved to people I belonged at this level," he said.

"That game turned around my whole career." There and then Williams, all 5ft 7in and 12st 6lb of him, became the little man's representative in the land of the giants. What made the tale all the more irresistible was its beginning, or at least the beginning of that rebirth of an international career that had spluttered since the first cap in 2000. And this particular New Zealand showdown is surely all the more relevant – falling, as it does, on the eve of the awards ceremony that could finally cement Williams's standing as a "great" – because of the two principal coaches in opposition.

He will be squaring up to Graham Henry, the believer who "first invited me into the Wales family", and to Steve Hansen, the doubter who initially ostracised him. It seems increasingly incredible to think back and recall that Hansen picked Williams as the third-choice scrum-half for that World Cup. "When Steve told me, my first thought was 'You cheeky bastard'," said Williams. "But I just wanted to go to that World Cup and was glad of any opportunity." That opportunity took a while to arrive and that while was to seem like an eternity when Williams flipped in a training session at what he perceived to be his demeaning role of water carrier. "It was one of those situations when you instantly regretted saying something," said Williams, as he explained his four-lettered outburst against the Kiwi. "I thought to myself 'Oh my God, I've just told Steve Hansen to fuck off'."

As career moves go it was a veritable early-bather, but credit to Hansen, he did not bear a grudge and eventually afforded Williams the chance he had been promised. That it came against New Zealand in a group game that many believed Hansen had already given up on with his "Suicide XV" did not bode well for Williams. And neither did the stomach bug which kept him confined to bed for the four days leading up to the match. "It was one of those games when I thought, 'Sod the game-plan just give me the ball'," he said. "I didn't expect to be playing the next week so I just went out and did my thing. The pitch appeared enormous to me, like there was 15 yards of extra space on either flank. Everything I got involved with seemed to go well." Williams started that tournament "feeling like the baggage man" , but suddenly the only thing he was carrying was three All Blacks over the try-line. His destination label now read "Welsh folklore".

Williams was duly picked for the epic England quarter-final and the rest is woven into one of the more colourful sections of the Welsh rugby tapestry. Sidestep after sidestep came, opponent after opponent flew the other way and this mazy journey hit March with Williams scoring the try which sealed Wales' second Grand Slam in three years. The fact it came against the only top-flight nation Williams had yet to score against (France) and the fact that it broke the Welsh try-scoring record (41) was merely fitting for a finisher for whom timing has always been everything.

Which brings us nicely on to the All Blacks. Cue a Sydney reprise perhaps this time with the desired denouement? That would be nice, declared Williams. "Obviously if we can play like we did in patches in 2003 for 80 minutes, we won't have any problems," he said. "But rugby has come on leaps and bounds since then. Defence is such a factor now and New Zealand's defence is the best in the world. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't watched that game a few times on DVD. And there have been occasions that if I was feeling down I would put it on. But the game's moved on. I'd like to think I've moved on a bit, as well."

"A bit" may come to be classed as one of Williams's more monumental understatements, particularly if, as every bookmaker screams, he receives rugby's most coveted gong in London on Sunday.

"Ah, the awards, I'd forgotten about that," he said with a wink. "In seriousness, I've tried to put that to the back of my mind. That award's about last season, and unfortunately that's gone. I can't dwell on that. And when you've got the All Blacks to face that tends to put the next day on the back burner. You've got to make it there first."

Shane: My Story, Mainstream, £16.99

In the running: Contenders for IRB's top award

World player of year shortlist:

Shane Williams (Wales, wing)

Dan Carter (New Zealand, fly-half)

Mike Blair (Scotland, scrum-half)

Sergio Parisse (Italy, back-rower)

Ryan Jones (Wales, back-rower)

The IRB's prize was introduced in 2001

Past winners:

2001 Keith Wood (Ireland, hooker)

2002 Fabien Galthié (France, scrum-half)

2003 Jonny Wilkinson (England, fly-half)

2004 Schalk Burger (South Africa, flanker)

2005 Dan Carter (New Zealand, fly-half)

2006 Richie McCaw (New Zealand, flanker)

2007 Bryan Habana (South Africa, winger)

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