There was a spell during Shane Williams' evolution into the hottest try-scorer in international rugby when, if he hadn't existed, no one would have felt the need to invent him. Graham Henry, for instance, was convinced that size mattered while he was Wales coach and Williams, who has only ever been knee high to a gnat, found neither his face nor any other part of him fitted. "I considered giving up the game in 2002," said the Ospreys wing, who has scored in 10 of his last 11 Wales Tests. "For a long time my size and strength were constantly criticised. And it gets to you. Luckily my personality was to say to the critics 'stuff them, I'll prove them wrong'."
Thank goodness for that, when you imagine what we might have missed out on. The Welsh record of 43 Test tries, the romance of the "little man made good" in two Grand Slams (2005 and 2008), the impish grin, the electric thrill through the veins of anyone with a heart for sport when Shane shimmies and sidesteps and shatters the opposition. It's all recorded in Williams' autobiography, Shane: My Story, just published.
"There's not too much controversy in it," he said, when we spoke before Ospreys' EDF Energy Cup tie (they are the holders) against Harlequins today, to be followed by Heineken Cup humdingers away to Leicester next Sunday and at home to Perpignan. But it's a good read, a good story.
"I was small at school and never going to be more than 13 stones even if I ate pies all day for the rest of my life," Williams said. He remembers being "beside myself with fear" when he won his first Wales cap in 2000, standing 5ft 7in in "a tent" of a jersey and weighing 11 stones wringing wet. "What I did was work hard on the things I could do, and I've become a stronger and better player. So, yeah, I'm very proud of where I've got."
There is a pause and a gurgling sound as Williams manoeuvres his mobile phone and attempts to stop baby daughter Georgie crawling over the top of his head. "I hope she's not as busy as I was when I was a kid." He grew up living over a pub and his mother separated from his father – never a sportsman, but a noted local hardcase – when he was seven. This and the early jobs Williams had with a window-fitter and in a Job Centre gave him a perspective to go with the assurance of never living more than two miles from his birthplace in the Amman Valley, equidistant from Neath and Swansea.
It was Lyn Jones, then the coach of Neath, who put the young Williams on £130 a week with a beaten-up Ford Fiesta thrown in to dissuade him from moving to Blaydon in the North-east of England. At the end of last season, despite plenty of success, Jones was sacked as Ospreys' head coach.
"Lyn will always be a friend and he popped in the other day for a cup of tea and a chat," said Williams. "But things move on in rugby. If you look at Ospreys now compared to last season it's positive." Sean Holley and Jonathan Humphreys are in charge, although there is a heavy-hitting appointment rumoured. A stellar squad, missing only the injured scrum-halves Mike Phillips and Jamie Nutbrown, are at full strength today – Gavin Henson, described by Williams as "world class", makes his first start for six months – and are top of the Magners League. A weakened Quins had better watch out. "We've matured as a side and off the field we seem more of a family," said Williams. "I'm more comfortable with the Ospreys than I was at Neath, and I didn't think that could ever happen."
Williams, feeling in his pomp at 31, believes Wales can win the World Cup if they marry their talent with consistency. He yearns to make a second Lions tour next summer, and both that and Wales' forthcoming autumn internationals could pitch him against South Africa's Bryan Habana, who in terms of tries per Test in the past year cannot match Williams.
They met in the Republic in June, when Wales lost twice. Williams outscored Habana two tries to nil, sidestepping him lavishly for one of them, but the banter was bronze medal stuff. "I was shouting 'mismatch' and 'I've got him, easy'," Williams said. "Bloody cheeky, really. Bryan is possibly the best winger in the world." Possibly not. Williams is among five nominees to succeed Habana as the IRB World Player of the Year, based on moments like the devastating burst of pace and short-arm hand-off of Andrew Trimble which earned a Triple Crown-sealing win in Ireland last March.
It wouldn't be Wales without a little bit of politics. Ospreys' final EDF pool match against London Irish falls a week before Wales' meeting with the Springboks on 8 November, with New Zealand and Australia to come. The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, is livid at the lack of preparation time. It's region v country with claim and counter-claim. "I just want to be involved as much as I can," said Williams. "After the game I switch off, otherwise I'd go insane." Blow the whistle and Shane will do the job. It's better than working in a Job Centre.
Try, try and try again...
Shane's last 12 months for Wales:
9 Sept 2007/Canada, World Cup/2
15 Sept/Australia, WC/1
20 Sept/Japan, WC/2
29 Sept/Fiji, WC/1
2 Feb 2008/England, Six Nations/0
9 Feb/Scotland, SN/2
23 Feb/Italy, SN/2
8 March/Ireland, SN/1
15 March/France, SN/1
7 June/South Africa/1
14 June/South Africa/1
All-time top scorers in Tests:
1 Daisuke Ohata (Japan) 69/58
2 David Campese (Aus) 64/101
3 Rory Underwood (Eng) 50/91
4 Doug Howlett (NZ) 49/62
5 Christian Cullen (NZ) 46/58
6 Jeff Wilson (NZ) 44/60
7= Joe Rokocoko (NZ) 43/48
7= Shane Williams (Wal) 43/58
9 Gareth Thomas (Wal) 41/103
10 Chris Latham (Aus) 40/77Reuse content