What is Shane Williams Doing on the Lions Tour?

When WoC looked at its twitter feed yesterday morning and saw that Shane Williams had been called up to the Lions we had to check the date and make sure it wasn’t April 1.  What the heck was Shane Williams doing being called out after a year in semi-retiurement in Japan?

Before getting too emotional about the tear-stained Lions jerseys and their almost spiritual qualities, it’s worth remembering exactly what Williams has been parachuted into the squad to do.  He’s there to play one midweek game, the one before the first test, before going home again, or back on the beer, or whatever he was doing.  Yes, the Lions is that last great tour on earth, and that should be respected, but we’re now living in an age where injuries are more prevalent than ever, and a bit of pragmatism is essential.  He’s been picked because he’s already in Australia and he does not have to overcome the same jetlag as, say, Christian Wade will have to.  He’s giving Gatty a dig out.  Wazza obviously feels he just needs a space-filler for this game, so as to avoid putting one of his test men on the pitch and risking them getting injured. Given the word on the street is that George North and Tommy Bowe will be available by the middle of next week, he’ll have a few more faces to choose from, so it’s not worth flying, say, Timbo Visser, halfway around the world for one game.  It’s a quick-fix.

Anyone who thinks the Lions shirt is being devalued by Shane Williams wearing it probably needs to look down the list of fair-to-middling players that have worn it: Andy Powell, Ugo Monye and Lee Mears spring to mind, and that was just the last tour. Have a look at the touring panel from 2005 and try reminding yourself of the magnificent feats of Gareth Cooper, Iain Balshaw and Ollie Smith. Shane Williams is a two-time Lions tourist and knows what it’s all about.  He was also a ridiculously good player, and will make the midweek team better to watch, even if it’s only for one game.  And if he’s even 15% as good as he was in his last game in an Ospreys jersey, which was only 12 months ago, when he was the matchwinner against Leinster in the Pro12 final, he’ll be more than up to task of filling in for the Lions in a midweek match.

But there are some counter-arguments.  Principally that it devalues the touring party and is a slight on players who have played all year to try and earn a shot at the Lions.  Given the one-shot nature of the call-up, would we prefer to have the jinking Welshman out there instead of, say, a jetlagged Tim Visser? Yes … if it’s a one-shot game. With the injuries coming thick and fast, who’s to say he won’t be needed more? What if Wade or Zebo get injured? At present, he’s 1.5 injuries away from a spot on the test bench, and, for that, I’d rather Visser to be frank – glorified training in Japan followed by a jolly around Oz just isn’t good enough preparation.

Andy Nicol was called up in exactly the same circumstances twelve years ago, and he prayed Matt Dawson wouldn’t get injured – he didn’t think he would last ten minutes. And Nicol hadn’t been in Japan for a year.

There is also the tightrope Gatty is walking with regard to Welsh players – if he picks his boys in all the 50-50s, having called up his mate from the bar, it’s not going to go down well in the squad. We’re sure Gatty has a plan to manage all this, but if Williams ends up being needed for the bench (or the field) in a test, a slightly madcap, fun-filled gamble will have backfired spectacularly.

A legend departs the international scene

This saturday’s game between Wales and Australia should make for decent viewing: expect to see two attacking sides with the shackles off playing under little enough pressure.  It’s also significant for one other reason: it’s the last time we’ll see Shane Williams in a test match.  The impish genius with the matchless step will depart the scene with a phenomenal 58 tries in 87 tests, including two in four caps over two tours for the Lions, and two grand slams with Wales.

It’s a haul that’s hard to argue with, but the strange thing is, that some do, particularly those with selective memories who can only recall the Kiwis battering through him on the ill-fated Lions tour in 2005 (when everyone around him was covering themselves in glory, right?) and overlook his frequent brilliance against Southern Hemisphere teams.  Indeed, WoC remembers looking on slack-jawed during a pub discussion where one 10-man rugby enthusiast insisted on his preference for Ian Dowling over Shane Williams, given the choice, on the basis of his sturdy defence.  Yowsa!

Fifty-eight test tries.  Fifty-eight!  To put that in context, Vincent Clerc has 31 and Sitiveni Sivivatu has 29.  Even the great Brian O’Driscoll is 13 behind on 45, and in almost 40 tests more than Williams, albeit from centre.  In fact, only David Campese and, erm, Daisuke Ohata (the veteran Japanese wing) have scored more international tries in the history of the game. And with all due respect to Ohata… ahhh, we’ll let him have his moment.

That alone would mark Williams out as one of the best finishers in the game, but Williams has always offered much more than an eye for the tryline.  Lethal in tight spaces or broken field, his ability to step off either foot is his greatest attacking weapon, but it’s followed closely by his exceptional hands and distribution.  It’s often forgotten that when Williams originally signed for Neath it was as a scrum-half.  His skill-set and willingness to take on responsibility have frequently seen him temporarily switch to scrummie or even first receiver down the years, usually when Mike Phillips is buried at the bottom of the ruck.

Remember him, not only as one of the most exciting players to watch, but one of the greatest wings of the modern game; a genius if you will.  Even in the modern era of bish and bosh rugby, there’ll always be room for a guy of his stature, but only if he’s unbelievably good.

Here’s a few classics that will live in the memory bank for a while.

1. Shaney Williams can’t do it against big physical teams?  Tell that to South Africa. He frequently outplayed Habana throughout his career.

2. Never one to hang around the wing, here he steps into midfield, runs a killer line, makes a brilliant offload, and turns up on the wing a couple of phases later to finish a great team try:

 

3. Or just enjoy one of the many montage tributes to his greatness on YouTube (Warning: may contain soft tackling):