Williams back on familiar turf with new lease of life

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More than one of his friends, since Shane Williams got back from the World Cup, has remarked upon it. The handshake and the half-smile, like a rugby Mona Lisa, that he gave Ben Cohen at the end of the tumultuous quarter-final between Wales and England. "It showed I was pleased to have been up against him again," said Williams. "It meant I was back playing against the best in the world."

When the teams met at Twickenham in 2000, and both men were novices on the Test scene, England won 46-17. Asked afterwards what he thought of Williams, Big Ben chimed a famously discordant note. "Shane who?" he said.

Cohen has since argued, quite reasonably, that the questioner had been mumbling, and that another Shane, Howarth of Grannygate fame, was also in the Wales side. Williams, for his part, found it more amusing than some of those closest to him, angry at the perceived arrogance of the Englishman.

In any case, when the rematch in Brisbane came around, the goalposts had been moved. Cohen was a fixture with England; Williams, after a spell of injuries and non-selection, was again an unfamiliar figure in Wales colours. The self-respect gained in running England close, following a thrilling tilt at the All Blacks, when Williams scored his 13th try in as many Tests, breathed life into the Welsh dragon.

"In a way I'm glad to be back from the World Cup," said Williams. "I prefer to move on, not to dwell on things. But I do get a bit of attention, and it's nice to get people coming up to you, saying you did this or that right."

One obvious thing he did right was returning an injudicious England kick half the length of the field in a sparkling move that made a try for Stephen Jones. The scoring pass was Williams's - an instinctive inside flip - but his first act was to catch the ball dropping over his shoulder and look round to see who was coming. "Fortunately it was Ben Kay and not Jason Robinson," he said. "It was great to frighten England the way we did, although none of us are forgetting that it's them who won the World Cup."

Today, Williams is contemplating another Anglo-Welsh match-up, with the embryonic regional side, Neath-Swansea Ospreys, away to Leeds in the Heineken Cup. The Ospreys have lost four Celtic League matches in a row, although only one - last weekend against Leinster - with their World Cup players involved. "It doesn't feel like I've left Neath," said Williams, who made his debut for the Welsh All Blacks in the Heineken Cup against Perpignan five years ago. "Yet we've got new players in from Swansea, and a few from Bath. The coach, Lyn Jones, is the same, and he is trying to use the same style as he did at Neath: open in attack but with a tight defence. It won't happen overnight."

As separate entities, Neath and Swansea rarely fizzed in the Heineken. The Whites were semi-finalists in the first season, and reached the last eight in 2001. Otherwise, the clubs each failed four times to make it beyond the pool stage.

Williams, 26, grew up in Glanamman, a village equi-distant from Neath and Swansea. So as neatly as the 5ft 8in wing gave Kay the slip, he can sidestep the question of how the diehard club supporters are taking to the merger. "It is my region, really," said Williams. "And the organisation is 10 times better than last season, it's more professional."

In the Heineken Cup, the Ospreys will host Edinburgh and Leeds at Swansea, and Toulouse at Neath. The plan is eventually to set up home with Swansea City AFC at Morfa, where a long-planned stadium is supposed to be finished by mid-2005.

"I haven't been following Leeds too closely," Williams admitted, not that the teams are short of mutual awareness. Jones and Leeds's coach, Phil Davies, were team-mates in Tests against Zimbabwe and Namibia in 1993. And the captain on that tour, Gareth Llewellyn, is still seeing service for the Ospreys and Wales. Region and country - it hasn't got much of a ring to it, but with Williams on the wing, anything is possible.