Shane Williams was an afterthought, the last addition to the Wales squad of 30. A wing in his first spell with Wales, Williams became a member of Steve Hansen's squad as the third-choice scrum-half. In front of him were Gareth Cooper and Dwayne Peel, and Williams did not get a look-in against Canada, Tonga and Italy in the first three pool matches.
To qualify for the quarter-finals, Wales had to beat the Italians, and after managing that, Hansen, the coach, made wholesale changes. If it was designed to confuse New Zealand, it succeeded. A few days before the game against the All Blacks, Williams, who played not at No 9 but at 14, was in bed with flu. "I didn't know whether I would be playing,'' he said. "I am glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.'' So did most of the audience of 80,000.
The TV commentators had never heard of Williams, and the same goes for John Mitchell, the New Zealand coach. Asked if he had seen Williams before, Mitchell replied: "Is he the No 6?''
As both players, Williams and the blindside flanker Jonathan Thomas, had run riot through the All Blacks' defence, perhaps the confusion was understandable. Mitchell would not have known Williams and Thomas from Adam - that's Jones, the prop who plays for the new regional club, the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, also inhabited by Williams and Thomas. Generally regarded as cannon fodder, Wales went down with all guns blazing, Williams creating one try and scoring another. "I don't know what all the fuss is about,'' Lyn Jones, the Ospreys coach, said. "Shane's being doing that for Neath week in, week out for a number of years.''
Williams came to the attention of Graham Henry, Hansen's predecessor at Wales, by virtue of being the top try-scorer for his club, and although he produced that at Test level, Henry discarded him, probably on the grounds that he was too small. Nor was Hansen a fan, although that appeared to change last Sunday. "He played like a champion,'' Hansen said.
At 5ft 7in and a shade over 12st, Williams is no Jonah Lomu or Joe Rokocoko, but he knows where the try-line is and how to get there. Although he has scored 12 tries in 11 Tests, neither Henry nor Hansen gave him an extended run.
Williams reminded Hansen of his try-scoring prowess by scoring two pre-season hat-tricks for his club and running in two more tries against Romania in one of Wales's World Cup warm-up matches. He was a gymnast as a youngster and played football before switching codes. Six years ago, Lyn Jones tried him out as a second-string scrum-half to Pat Horgan. When Horgan got injured, Williams was thrown into a Heineken Cup match against Perpignan. "Shane played so well I put an offer in for him,'' Jones said. Neath were not the highest payers. Williams started at £7,000 a year.
"His left foot was so good I played him on the left wing,'' Jones added. "It was obvious he had a massive talent, although he needed schooling. Everything takes time. The thing is he is typically Welsh. There's a touch of magic there. He's modest to the point of being shy, but he's developed as a person and as a player.
"If it's a close game you could put him at scrum-half and he'll make things happen. In fact you could play him at full-back or anywhere. He's the Austin Healey of Wales. He's got the ability to pull something out of the bag, and pound for pound nobody is stronger. He has also got an inner strength. He is a brave little boy.''
Two years ago, Williams was advised to put a bit of weight on. "He was considered too slight,'' Jones said. "But he's been working hard and is in the best condition he's ever been. For the first time in 12 years of watching Wales I had my arms in the air. I was delighted with the way they created opportunities.''
Only last February Frédéric Michalak, who often switches between nine and 10 for his club, Toulouse, and is now a pivotal figure for the French, played scrum-half for France Under-21s against England at Twickenham. The Australian Matt Giteau is another with a roving eye. And Shane Williams has suddenly become Wales's flexible friend.Reuse content