It says much about Shane Williams and the widespread wonder this Welsh wizard has conjured that it will not just be the home fans feeling emotional tonight when they realise this is the little man's last Six Nations game against England. Many in white shirts will also be bidding a farewell which will be fond for other reasons than the thought of those dancing feet terrorising their defences.
Williams, all 5ft 7in, 12st and 33 years of him, is adamant he will retire from international rugby following the World Cup later this year. "Knowing this is my last Six Nations is hard to take," he said. "But what I don't want is for some coach to come up and say, 'Look, Shane, you're too old, bugger off'."
So he will take his leave his own way, which knowing Williams will involve six jinks, five sidesteps and a flying leap through the exit doors. It might also feature a try or two against England and an ensuing Grand Slam. The old romantic could think of no more perfect ending.
"The Six Nations has always been the tournament for me," said Williams. "That's why this means so much, knowing I have only two matches left at the Millennium Stadium. Yes, England is the special one and always has been. We had a day off on Tuesday and I went walking around the shops. I could feel the air of nervous excitement. It's what it's all about."
Williams admits, however, that sometimes the excitement proved simply too much. Take his first Six Nations encounter against England. The year was 2000, the venue was Twickenham and the opponent laughing in his face was hardly famous for being gracious in victory.
"I was a naive 21-year-old from the Amman Valley and was up against Austin Healey," recalled Williams. "He didn't stop chirping at me all night, but I didn't have a clue what to say back. The crowning moment was when I finally found some space and ran at him. As I tried to round him, Austin managed to catch me by the shorts and dump me on the floor. 'I thought you were supposed to be fast!' he yelled at me. By the time I left the field I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to cut it in the Six Nations."
Cut it? He ended up slicing the Championship, and so many of its defences, in half. Two Grand Slams and 20 tries – a Welsh record – are the spoils of his 11-year Six Nations odyssey. Not to mention four wins from the last six games when Wales have faced their dear neighbours. "Shane is a red alert player," commented Mike Ford, the England defence coach, yesterday. "He can beat you in a phone box."
Ford's description was very much in the present. He, like everyone else in the game, is aware that Williams still has a spring in his sidestep and is surprised he will be retiring so soon. Particularly as he has just taken nine weeks to return from a shoulder injury which was supposed to keep him out for 13 weeks and the first two games of this Championship.
"I was desperate to get back for this," said Williams. "It's a massive game. I know all about what opening-day wins against the old enemy can do for us, having been part of the Grand Slam- winning sides of 2005 and 2008 when we started the ball rolling by beating England."
But have Wales brought their talisman back too soon? After all, he has enjoyed just 25 minutes – albeit 25 stunning minutes – of rugby in nearly three months. "Don't worry, I've had the boys chucking me around with judo throws to check the shoulder's fine," he said. "I might be lacking a bit of match-fitness, but the run-out against Toulon has made me confident I'll be 100 per cent. I'll have to be. I'm up against a very good player."
He is plainly an admirer of Chris Ashton. The Northampton flyer may be 10 years his junior and six inches his senior, but Williams spots a kindred spirit. "What's so good about Ashton is that he's a player who goes looking for work," he said. "They're the wingers I respect. Gone are the days when the winger scores in the corner, gets patted on the back and then gets his third touch in the 80th minute. The good ones get involved. It's what I've always done, and Ashton is the same. He's a big lad who will pop up in different places and make my job that much harder. I've got to keep my eye on him."
Yet as Williams points out, it could be worse. "At least I won't have Healey in my earhole," he said.
Shane's Six Nations
Williams made his Six Nations debut in a 36-3 defeat against France at the Millennium Stadium in 2000.
37 of Williams' 75 appearances for Wales have come in the Six Nations.
6 Williams' most productive campaign was in 2008, when he scored six tries during Wales' Grand Slam win.
20 Total number of tries Williams has scored in the tournament (100 points).
5 Times Williams has been an ever-present in a Six Nations campaign.
7 Williams has scored tries in seven of his nine Six Nations campaigns.Reuse content