Martyn Williams, the best footballing flanker in the British Isles by the kind of distance Paula Radcliffe runs during the course of a full week's training, played only the last two minutes of the third and final Lions Test against the All Blacks in 2005 - a gratuitous waste of talent if ever there was one. It was as if the record label executive famously responsible for knocking back The Beatles had been reincarnated as a rugby selector. Come to think of it, this is as good an explanation as any for the shambles masquerading as a professionally managed assault on the most forbidding stronghold in the world game.
Sir Clive Woodward and his fellow coaches could hardly claim ignorance of the Welshman's gifts - Williams had, after all, been garlanded as the outstanding performer in that year's Six Nations Championship, which his country had won in Grand Slam style. When Woodward went so far as to suggest, a few days before departure, that more than half his Test team might be drawn from the Red Dragonhood, it was assumed not only that Williams would be among the 50 per cent or so, but that he was first among equals.
It is now a matter of sorrowful record that things did not come to pass in the way either Williams or the Welsh nation imagined. Those with an ear for coaching doublespeak were reluctant to take Woodward at his word, partly because they knew him to be capable of contradicting himself in the space between two commas and partly because they expected him to wrap himself in the flag of St George the moment the chill wind of the Test series started blowing through the South Island. Sure enough, he picked an out-of-form Englishman, the Leicester veteran Neil Back, ahead of Williams for the first match of the rubber in Christchurch, and when that failed to work, he turned to the injury-prone Lewis Moody. Same club, same nationality.
Williams did not deserve these rejections, for despite failing to subdue the ruthless Marty Holah during the defeat by the Maori in Hamilton, he played a highly creative hand in many of the tourists' better performances over the course of two painful months in purgatory. Yet there was barely a murmur from him at the time - Gavin Henson took a rather different approach - and he holds no grudges now. Maybe it is a flaw in his competitive character, this reluctance to thump his own tub and talk a great game to anyone who might be listening. If so, the game could use more such flaws. It would make rugby a nicer place.
"What did I discover about myself during the Lions trip? That I needed to sharpen up my act," Williams said this week as the horizontal rain battered against the windows of the Cardiff Blues training base, situated in the grounds of a run-down hospital - something that might have served as a perfect metaphor for the club in recent years, but far less accurate now. "Looking back on it, I learnt more about playing open-side flanker during those weeks in New Zealand than I had in the previous 10 years playing everywhere else. What happened on the tour opened my eyes, and opened them wide. I'm grateful for the experience."
Can this really be true? It is possible that a player as accomplished as Williams - a forward once hotly pursued by Andy Robinson, the current England coach, as a potential answer to Bath's back-row problems; a hardened professional with a half-century of caps to his name, one good enough to lord it over the likes of the French and the Irish in the heat of a Six Nations tournament - could find himself learning the game anew a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday? This is his belief, startling though it may seem.
"I think every one of us on that trip would accept we were taught a lesson," he continued, "particularly in the tackle area, where the modern game is won and lost. For a player in my position, it was obviously going to be a demanding tour. Everywhere you go in New Zealand, the open-side flanker is king; the fourth- or fifth- choice No 7 over there would walk into most sides here. But the thing that made them different to us, better than us, was that they all contested the breakdown, from one to 15. What was more, they were all brilliant at it. Some were more brilliant than others, but that wasn't much consolation. The intensity was phenomenal, and it took us a long time to get to grips with the fact that while we were picking and choosing when to make nuisances of ourselves, they were doing it all the time."
This was precisely how Pontypridd used to play in the early years of the Heineken Cup - the days before regionalisation in Wales, when Williams was the young prince of Sardis Road. "That's true," he agreed. "We used to get away with all sorts at Ponty. The way we went about the game was outside the culture of Welsh rugby at the time, and no one picked up on it. But somewhere along the line, I got out of the habit of playing that style of rugby. It was only when I found myself up against the Bay of Plenty and the Maori in the early stages of the Lions tour - games in which none of us knew what hit us in terms of the contest for the ball on the floor - that I realised how far things had slipped."
Fifteen months on, he is back in his pomp, aided and abetted by a sharp upturn in the fortunes of the Blues, who won a competitive game in France for the first time by beating Bourgoin in the Lyonnais last Saturday. Tomorrow, they face Leicester at the Millennium Stadium in one of the pivotal fixtures of the Heineken Cup pool stage. The Englishmen will come out fighting - their narrow defeat by Munster at Welford Road six days ago makes this a do-or-die affair for them - and something in the region of 25,000 spectators are expected to watch them take up the cudgels. Then, a week today, Wales take on the Wallabies at the same venue. Williams may be on top of his game, but life is not exactly a bowl of cherries.
"A six-day turnaround between matches of this magnitude? I'll have had easier weeks," he admitted. "If I'm selected to play against Australia" - one of the smaller "ifs" in rugby history, it has to be said - "it will be the adrenalin that carries me through. We know we won't beat Leicester with the kind of performance we produced in Bourgoin, because we really didn't play that well over there. In one sense, it's a positive thing that we were able to travel to France with our history of failure and come away with a win from a flawed display, but Leicester will ask far more questions of us. Bourgoin thought they'd take us up front and that would be that. When they found they couldn't break us down, they didn't know what else to do. Leicester will know, for sure.
"There again, I think we have a right to feel good about ourselves. We're physically stronger than we were a year ago, and we have more depth in our squad. Last season, our standards slipped if we couldn't put our best XV on the field; if someone like Xavier Rush [the former All Blacks No 8] was missing, we felt lost. That has changed for the better. Xavier has been missing this season, too, but Mark Lewis has stepped up and played some terrific stuff."
Was he suggesting the Blues might fancy themselves up front against the Midlanders? That they might take it to them in the darker regions of the contest, as well as on the sunlit uplands? "Look, the wide game still suits us, as a team and as a nation," he replied. "We're not massive specimens, like the English or the South Africans, so the more expansive we make things, the better it is for us. But I do believe we're more capable of achieving something approaching parity up front - by 'we', I mean both the Blues and Wales - and if we can get ourselves 50 per cent of the ball or close to it, we should back ourselves to win most matches.
"Like a lot of Welsh players, I know what it is to live off scraps year after year. You do your best, but the novelty wears thin and the frustration kicks in. These days, we don't get outmuscled nearly as often as we did. There are challenges ahead - this meeting with Leicester is a hugely significant test for the Blues pack, because it will tell us exactly where we stand. Have we got it cracked? Not yet. Are we better than we were? Yes, I'd say we are."Reuse content