James Corrigan: Shane Who stands up for the little big man

The Way I See It: A Lilliputian in the Land of Giants, he was the little man's representative and the fans' favourite

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The Independent Online

So this is how it worked out. Ben Cohen was one of the try scorers as England rout Wales and afterwards when asked how he thought Shane Williams played he replied: "Shane Who?" Eight years later, Williams wins the International Rugby Board's World Player of the Year, while Cohen wins Sports Personality of the Year – presented by Gay Times.

No shame there. Cohen is proud of his gay icon image and should be applauded for the work of his Stand-up Foundation which seeks to combat homophobia and bullying. Furthermore, Cohen has no reason to be red-faced concerning his international career. He won 57 caps and is third in England's all-time list of try-scorers. As a World Cup winner he can claim to be a success story.

Except that comment, those two words, made into a BBC Wales microphone, will always serve as an asterisk in some people's eyes, most of whom, it must be said, are Welsh. Cohen has since explained he was not being arrogant and was merely attempting to identify whether the interviewer was referring to Shane Williams or the full-back Shane Howarth. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the controversy, the pair have inevitably been linked ever since. And now, as Williams prepares to make his international farewell at an emotional Millennium Stadium on Saturday, it is worth comparing the two, if only to see how it is still possible for the little man to become a rugby great.

What were the odds on that dank March Twickenham evening in 2000 of Williams scoring more international tries than Cohen, of making more Lions appearances that Cohen, of winning more Grand Slams that Cohen, of scoring more tries in his career, making more first-class appearances, of receiving rugby's biggest individual accolade and finally, of outlasting Cohen, a brute of an athlete who is actually one year younger. The odds on Tiger Woods's descent from saintliness would have been more prohibitive.

Back then, Cohen was seen as something of the prototype and Williams as completely the wrong type. Rugby's sizeist revolution was in full flow and with Cohen, at 6ft 2in, some eight inches taller than Williams, and at 16st 3lb, more than five stone heavier, there was only going to be one legend. Big Ben versus Ickle Shane – no contest. Let the dings go dong as they did, with Cohen becoming, according to Will Greenwood, "the go-to player" of that mighty English unit and with Williams, a slip of a lad who for so long had to suffer the taunts of "pass it to the ball boy!" being cast into the international wilderness. "Shane Who?" indeed.

But then, something remarkable came to pass. Williams, taken to the 2003 World Cup in his mum's words "as the waterboy", was chosen in Steve Hansen's XV to go through the obligation of playing New Zealand in a group game. "That was the one moment that gave me goosebumps and still does. That day changed Shane's career," remembered Christine Williams yesterday. "He proved everybody wrong, he showed everyone that he wasn't too small to play international rugby, he silenced all his doubters. He set the rugby world alight."

Cohen, of course, was packing his own Swan Vestas at that tournament and went on to appear in all but one of England's march to Webb Ellis glory. He was exactly where his physique and talent demanded he should be. Yet who knows what goes on inside? The legs may have been pumping as ferociously as ever, but the heart had lost a cylinder. Cohen admitted losing appetite for the game and so the slow decline began. By the time of the next World Cup he had chosen to stay at home with his pregnant girlfriend and his international days were over. Last year, after a few unproductive years in France he retired for good. Now he is the face of a menswear company which caters specifically for the big and tall. So his bulk is still paying the bills.

Yet what became of Shane? The miracles of sports science has helped him expand to 12st 8lb, but the lack of height still establish him as a curio, as a veritable Lilliputian in the Land of Giants. He has been the little man's representative, an inspiration for fans the world over. He is so much more than a Welsh national hero, as the many thousands of letters from the world over confirm. "Shane seems to be everyone's favourite player," said Christine. "Kids love him and so does the older generation."

It's obvious why. The 34-year-old has been the living, sidestepping proof that rugby's not all about big hits, all about barnstorming runs, all about crashing past defenders. Trickery, cunning and guile still has its place, as does the whiff of genius in the air, and as, naturally, does pace – pure pace. Yet as Shane looks up and down a Welsh backline, in which he is still the shortest by four inches, he must wonder about his legacy. Will we ever see his like again, as the game continues down its pathway to the Cyclopean? Just remember David versus Goliath; it was a one-off. Rugby fans of every shape, of every nationality should pray history doesn't come to recall "Shane Who?" as a similar rarity.