the spark

The Cult: Shane Williams

In honour of the Six Nations, we’ve inducted an iconic rugby player from each country into The Cult. Next we have Shane Williams, a winger who sparked Welsh rugby to life.
31 January 2017, 11:52am
Illustration by Dan Evans

Our newest inductee into The Cult was a Welsh winger who, despite his small stature, provided an electrifying jolt to the national game. You can read our previous entries here.

Cult Grade: The Spark

What does it mean to be a Welshman in the modern age? To be born within the borders and confines of Wales, one might presume. That doesn't take into account the considerable Welsh diaspora, of course, which ranges as far as Canada, Australia, the United States and, famously, Patagonia, where there are anything up to 5,000 Argentine Welsh-speakers descended from an intrepid group of 18th-century colonists. There are people of Welsh ancestry all across the globe, their families dispersed by opportunity, adventure and the historical vagaries of the British Empire. In their own swashbuckling foray beyond Wales, my kinsfolk made it as far afield as Slough, and subsequently the London postcode of N12.

Despite the relative proximity of the places to which our forefathers chose to emigrate, this makes it rather problematic to claim 'Welsh' identity, despite our feeling reasonably Welsh. While my granddad spoke the language well enough – as well as keeping up all the other Welsh traditions, like singing down the men's club on weekends and spending the best years of his life down a mine – my nan, like so many of her contemporaries, was never taught to speak Welsh at all. The native tongue was practically prohibited in schools in the Rhymney and Rhondda when she was a child, and so it has only been passed down the generations in brief snatches and garbled mush. So, today, we neither live in Wales nor speak its language. Still, ask us where the family are from, and we're likely to trace our heritage further back than the borders of a run-down trading estate on the Berkshire stretch of the M4.

READ MORE: Pride, Vengeance and a 40-Yard Kick – Remembering Wales' 2005 Clash With England

Growing up, the family stories were of the valleys in the thirties, some doubtlessly tinged with working-class romanticism and others reflective of the harsh realities of the time. Since then, we have lost much of that contemporary experience, Cwm Rhondda has been sung at a couple of funerals, and despite the cliche there are usually a few muffled tears when Zulu or How Green Was My Valley come on the box. These days, there are occasional Welsh songs in the house – songs survive even where the spoken word does not – and a heavy Welsh political legacy, whose origins can no doubt be traced to the long-disused pitheads of Tylorstown and Ferndale. In that sense, we are even less culturally in step with Wales, which is hardly the socialist stronghold it once was.

What kind of Welshmen are we, then? The sort that live in London, visit Wales occasionally, and vote in an increasingly unfashionable way. Were we honest with ourselves, perhaps we would have to admit there's little that connects us to the homeland that isn't in some sense defunct and outdated. Perhaps we identify with a hopelessly confused mish-mash of cultures, shared with barely anybody else. Still, whatever we do or do not have in common with the people of Wales, we'll always have Shane.

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If there was one thing my granddad taught me, other than never to trust a Conservative, it was to love Welsh rugby union and invest myself in the national game. Unfortunately, for the duration of my nineties childhood, Wales were often unwatchably shite and there were precious few glories to celebrate. While they narrowly won the Five Nations in 1994, the rest of the decade was pretty much disastrous, with Wales picking up the wooden spoon on four occasions. Things were marginally better in the early noughties, but in 2003 Wales still managed to finish bottom of the table with a grand total of zero points.

Come the end of that particular tournament, Wales had not won the Grand Slam for 25 years. In a land where rugby is a secular religion, and where the seventies heroics of J.P.R Williams and co. were still deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness, the failings of the subsequent decades were little less than a national humiliation. Combined with various social problems and drawn-out economic decline, there wasn't much for Wales to cheer about over the course of this barren period. The Welsh needed someone to spark rugby back into life, and to help restore their sporting pride. Thanks be to God, their saviour soon arrived on the scene, even if he wasn't as heroic in stature as some might have perhaps imagined.

Having earned his first cap for Wales against just after the turn of the millennium, Shane Williams was used intermittently over the course of the following few seasons. Employed as a scrum-half on occasion, there were still doubts amongst coaches over his fitness and physical presence, not least after he suffered a series of hamstring injuries which almost forced him out of the game. That said, despite these setbacks, nobody could question his desire and commitment. Having been taken to the 2003 World Cup as Wales' third-choice Number 9, he was given the chance to impress as a winger and soon had a handful of tries to his name.

READ MORE: The Six Nations Cult Series

Though he was only 5"7, Williams could more than hold his own on the rugby pitch. What he lacked in height he made up for in lightning pace, with his low centre of gravity allowing him to elude tackles with remarkable ease. Whenever he got the ball on the wing, he electrified the Welsh attack, jinking back and forth like the human embodiment of alternating current, side stepping lumbering opponents and leaving their hair standing on end from the static as he passed. He was brave, but he often didn't need to be. He could take a thunderous hit as well as the next man, but more often than not he had zipped under it and crossed the try line before it had even had a chance to land.

While the 2004 Six Nations tournament was only a moderate improvement for Wales – they finished fourth with two wins from five – Shane's personal capital was rising. He scored two well-taken tries as the Welsh thumped Italy in their final match, and continued to impress as the season went on. Heading into the 2005 edition of the competition, Wales were still outsiders for the championship, even if they had shown signs of improvement down in no small part to Williams' scoring rate. When the tournament actually began, however, it became clear that the Welsh, spearheaded by their exhilarating young winger, were onto a winner in more ways than one.

In a dramatic opener at the Millennium Stadium, Wales took on an England side who had soundly beaten them the previous year. Andy Robinson's men were World Cup holders and, although their grandeur had faded somewhat in the previous couple of seasons, they could still call upon the flair of Matt Dawson, Jason Robinson and Mark Cueto, as well as grizzled forwards like Graham Rowntree and Steve Borthwick. The game was tight, but a decisive intervention was made in the 11th minute when Wales scored the only try of the game. A flowing passing move reached Williams on the wing, and he slid beneath a desperate white-shirted tackle before thumping the ball down into the moist ground.

Crucial performances by Williams were to become something of a theme of the tournament, as Wales bested all comers in ruthless fashion. Against Italy, it was quick hands, sidestep, score; against France, his offload set up his gloriously ginger namesake Martyn Williams; against Scotland, a thumping run to the line saw him rack up his third try of the competition; against Ireland, it was run, and tackle, and cover, and Grand Slam. With the blonde mullet of his youth fluttering through the air, Williams had helped to inspire Wales to total victory over their Six Nations rivals. Welsh rugby was once more triumphant, zapped back to life by the electric talents of one of its least physically imposing sons.

READ MORE: A National Rugby Obsession and The St. David's Day Welsh

By the time he retired from the national team six years later, Williams was Wales' all-time record try scorer. He had won another Grand Slam in 2008, with his personal contribution even more marked. In that tournament, he scored twice against Italy, twice against Scotland, once against Ireland and once, in the deciding match, against France. The try against Les Bleus was his 41st in Welsh colours, breaking the all-time record as previously held by Gareth Thomas. Having only retired the previous year himself, Thomas had captained Williams when he scored against England in 2005, and so set Wales on their way to success.

In what was to turn out to be a golden decade for Welsh rugby, Williams provided the initial spark to what would soon be a raging rugby wildfire. Though he decided to call it a day in 2011, Wales' subsequent victories in the tournament may never have happened were it not for him. While rugby is perhaps the ultimate team game, Williams provided a flash of individual brilliance without which the team would have struggled to achieve what it did. For that, he can be credited with a leading role in the resurgence of the game in Wales. For that, he has been lionised by a generation of fans, and been given national hero status in the way that only a legend of Welsh rugby union can.

What does it mean to be a Welshman in the modern age, then? Hard for me to say, really, unless we're counting the idiosyncrasies of Valleys culture via Slough. Still, for people of Welsh heritage both inside and outside the national borders, there are some shared experiences which many of us still have in common. One of those is the sight of Shane Williams receiving a pass on the edge of the pitch, speeding forward like rolling thunder and flashing in an instant over the line, scoring to the sound of cheers.

Entry Point: Size Doesn't Matter

Brought up in Morriston on the outskirts of Swansea, Williams was, in his own words, "always considered too small to play rugby" by amateur coaches and teachers alike. Briefly deterred by their dismissive attitude, he took up football with Cwmamman United and somehow ended up playing in goal. Nonetheless, he found himself drawn back to the egg-shaped ball when he was invited by friends to play a match for the junior side at Amman United RFC, where he rather surprised the small crowd on the sidelines. The story goes that, by the end of the game, Amman had won by 82 points and Williams had scored a total of five tries.

Having started out with Amman, Williams then moved on to Neath and soon kicked off his senior career. While his original wages were such that he still had to work part-time at the local job centre, his try-scoring feats drew admiring glances from Wales' most illustrious sides. He joined Ospreys, the rest is history, and history proves his amateur coaches and teachers emphatically wrong in their judgement of him. Speaking on the subject in an interview with The Independent at the height of his powers, Williams said: "It's funny, but most of [my] fan mail seems to come from children who are the smallest in their class. And that's exactly the way I want it... it's been nice to put the middle finger up to people who said I wouldn't make it."

In a sense this makes Williams even more relatable, in that his story has a distinct underdog character to it. Artless and humble in public anyway, the fact that he had to overcome early rejection and an arbitrary height barrier makes his achievements seem all the more impressive. While Williams was almost dissuaded from pursuing the path of rugby union, there was at least one supporter who backed him to go the distance from the beginning. 10 years before he broke the record, his father Mark put a £50 bet on him to one day become Wales' top try scorer. When the day finally came, he saw a return of around £25,000.

The Moment: Wales vs. Australia, 2011

If there is one more element which rounds off the Shane Williams legend, alongside his sporting prowess and determination to belie his stature, it is the impression he gave in each and every one of his appearances that he knew how much it meant to play for Wales. That was never more apparent than in his last international match against Australia, when he was given a standing ovation and proceeded to cry his eyes out all the way through the national anthem. The sight of him clasped between the shoulders of Ryan Jones and Scott Andrews, practically lifted off his feet by his teammates as they belted out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau around him, was enough to make grown men weep in the stands. Williams looked smaller than ever, exposed and vulnerable, and how he got it together for kick off remains a mystery to this day.

Vulnerable as he might have looked, it is a testament to Williams' character that he not only contained his emotions, but also went on to score in the game, breaking the Australian defensive line in the last minute and roaring his way over the touchline in glee. While Wales narrowly lost the match, it was a fitting way for Williams to bow out, with the final whistle heralding more tears and a heartfelt interview on the side of the pitch. Speaking hesitantly in front of the cameras, he harked back to his boyhood and how desperately he wanted to don the Welsh jersey. That's a feeling which many can relate to, whether born within the borders of Wales or not.

Closing Statements:

"It's meant everything. Growing up as a child, that's the only thing you want to do... play for Wales."

– Shane Williams, talking through the tears after his final game, against Australia.

Words: @W_F_Magee // Illustration: @Dan_Draws