Shane Williams: 'My feet have not left the ground'

The Welsh game's little big man has had a superb season. Now, he tells James Corrigan, he's relishing the prospect of two Tests against the world's best winger
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a man who has lived and sighed and become totally exasperated by the motto "size isn't everything", it may seem slightly odd to find Shane Williams finally accepting the title as the little person's representative on Planet Rugby. Yet, as he revealed, the sheer weight of letters from diminutive supporters in his ever-growing fan club has made the role increasingly hard to ignore.

"It's incredible," Williams told The Independent. "Since the Grand Slam, my try-scoring record and winning that player of the tournament award, people have written to me from all over the world. From New Zealand, Japan, even England. You know, this whole 'small man' thing I've had to deal with all my career. I've taken the flak and been written off many times. I hope I've proved the critics wrong and if that inspires people, then brilliant. I'm humble if it does."

But that Lilliputian legion of adoring masses do not want "Ickle Shane" to be humble. They want him to be just as he has always been since being mistaken for the ball-boy on his debut for Neath more than a decade ago – cocky, uncompromising and completely indefatigable. Furthermore, they want him to continue the quest to prove that the bigger they are, the easier they are to duck under. Williams shoulders the responsibility with increasing comfort.

"It's a special position to be in, especially when you read what the little kids have to say," he said. "It's funny, but most of the fan-mail seems to come from children who are the smallest in their class. And that's exactly the way I want it. Yeah, it's been nice to put the middle finger up to people who said I wouldn't make it. But what's infinitely nicer is being able to write back to those kids and say, 'Look, it doesn't matter if you're the smallest on your team. Just go out there and enjoy it. Just remember, it's the size of the smile that counts.'"

Inspiring stuff, although with Williams the worry factor is never far away from the thrill factor. Indeed, that is the main factor in his charm. After all, Williams without the vulnerability would be just another rugby player and he would not have so many of the non-Welsh rooting for his cause. They cheer because of the fear, wear red because of the dread...

This Saturday, for instance, tiny digits will press on remotes the world over to see if Wales, the Six Nations champions, can beat South Africa, the world champions, in a summer Test that is at last worthy of the attention. More pertinently, they will be tuning in to see if Williams can once again rise as the twinkle-toed hero in the land of the mighty. They will sit there with a wince, akin to Mummy Rabbit watching Bambi trying to dodge the traffic on the M4. Williams is happy to allay any concerns for his safety.

"Don't worry, I'll be fine," he said, laughing as he sensed the trepidation in the interviewer. "Over the years my body has learnt to deal with it. Sure, I know that it must be doubted if you can ever be ready for an 18-stone flanker coming at you horizontally, on rock-hard ground. But it's been happening for a while now. I've been hit by enough of them before."

One Bokke with whom he is yet to have contact is Bryan Habana. Well, Williams did make contact with him, once, but only through the traditional collapse on his back after the South African had dived over the line at the Millennium Stadium three years ago. After scoring with his first touch of the ball at Twickenham the year before, Habana truly announced himself to the northern hemisphere that afternoon and although Williams has not exactly been sulking on his sofa ever since, he still comes a long way second whenever a "best winger list" is compiled.

The Welshman is four inches shorter, three stone lighter and at least five yards slower over 100m than his rival, so has a few excuses for any inferiority. But typically, Williams will never be content with simply being the hottest wing north of Habana.

"My incentive for these [two] Tests is that we're not only playing the world champions, but I'll be playing against the best winger in the world," he said. "I want to have one over on him. I want to be the better player coming off the field. In both Tests. That has to be my mentality. And it's not a selfish one because I know that Habana is so good that if I can overshadow him then I'll have done all that I can to help Wales win."

Yet even this dismisser of size appreciates it will be a big ask. "Habana is one of those players that has everything. He is someone blessed with a marvellous athletic physique, speed and a good rugby brain and to have those three married up is a privilege indeed. You know, I haven't had that many dealings with Bryan. I've spoken to him at a few dinners, but don't really know him. But I know what he does and I'd hope he knows what I do. He can create something out of nothing and is a joy to watch. Give me a Habana, a Jason Robinson, a Christophe Dominici any day. They're the ones who put bums on seats. They're the kind of player people want to see."

But there are other reasons why there is so much interest in the first Test, in Bloemfontein. "It just seems there's something lying on these two games, something you don't always get on these tours," said Williams. "The one problem about the summer tours is that they're in the summer. It's the end of the season and you're knackered both mentally and physically. It is sometimes very difficult to get on the plane and be really, really up for it.

"But this time it's different. From our point of view we know that if we want to be recognised as a good international side we've got to go to places such as South Africa and compete with the best, just as England did on their run to the World Cup in 2003. But then from the South African standpoint, they know that the Grand Slam winners are coming to town and they want to show who's boss. There's actually something tangible riding on it. World champs versus Six Nations champs. It does have a ring to it, doesn't it?"

Yes it does. But it must be suspected that if Don King was involved, Habana versus Williams would have played heavily in the promotion. Something along the lines of "The Winger Humdinger", perhaps?

"Yeah, but rugby's never been about two blokes is it? It's about 15 all doing their bit and that's what we have in Wales now. We train well and are coached well and are full of confidence. I've never been as confident and believe I'm playing the best rugby of my career. If you'd have told me where I'd be now six years ago I would have thought you were bonkers."

In fact, in 2002 Williams was on the brink of retirement. "It's mad really, seeing as how it's all turned out and it does sometimes spook me when I think back to how close I came to quitting," he said. "Sometimes I have the odd flashback and think, 'What would I be doing now if I had have called it a day?' Or, worse, 'What regrets would I be feeling?' But at the time I didn't consider myself good enough any more and I'd always told myself that when I felt that I wouldn't go out there any more. I still do.

"The problem was that I was doing my hamstrings all the time. I would get over it, come back and in a few games it would go again. It did my bloody head in. Literally, if you like. With a professional sportsman, when your fitness is down your confidence follows on a downward spiral, and I hit rock bottom. I was out of the Welsh picture, my confidence was totally shot and I questioned myself every time I played, every time I got hold of the ball.

"I very much play by instinct, so when you receive the ball in open play and your first thought is, 'Oh my God, can I do this?' you're invariably smashed over before you know it. All I could think was, 'Why am I doing it. I've lost it.' I was at the end of my tether. Then I woke up one morning and thought, 'To hell with all this moping. The only way I can get out of this mess is to work hard and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work.' So I trained my butt off and started to enjoy the game again.

"It was hard, though, and I really had to dig deep. I think that period made me as a rugby player, to be honest with you. It taught me it's not only about talent but more about what you can do if you apply yourself. The rewards I've gained have been obvious. And my dad earned a few bob as well. So it all worked out."

At the start of his Test career, in 2000, Williams' father, Mike, put £50 at 500-1 on his son breaking the Welsh try-scoring record. He picked up £25,000 when his son touched down for the 41st time, against France on Grand Slam day in March. Life changed for the Williams family during that campaign, and not just financially. "It's been a little overwhelming," said Williams Jnr.

"My feet haven't left the ground. Because of rugby being what it is in Wales I've always been recognised in the street, but never before have I had so many outside demands, like sponsorship, the media and what have you. And then there was my match at the Millennium Stadium. That blew my mind."

Despite it being FA Cup final day and a certain team called Cardiff City appearing at Wembley that afternoon, more than 10,000 turned out in the capital to pay homage to the flyer with the double-jointed ankles. To use a favourite phrase of Williams' he "felt humble" at the honour, but also determined that this would not, to use a quote from a wisecracking team-mate, be the usual "bugger off and die" testimonial.

"Those occasions usually come at the end of a player's career, but I still feel like I've got years left," said the 31-year-old. "Definitely until my Ospreys contract is up in three years and who knows, maybe up to the next World Cup. That may be a tall order. But I'll give it a go."

Do not bet against it. Williams has grown to be quite fond of belittling all things tall.

Our man and Habana: How wings measure up

Shane Williams

Born Swansea

Age 31

Height 5ft 7in

Weight 12st

International debut 2000

International caps 56

International tries 41

International awards Six Nations player of the year, 2008

Bryan Habana

Born Johannesburg

Age 24

Height 5ft 11in

Weight 15st

International debut 2004

International caps 36

International tries 30

International awards IRB player of the year, 2007