By Shane Thomas
Last Saturday, Wales played Australia in a post-World Cup encounter. However the near 62,000 people inside the Millennium Stadium were not there to watch a rugby union match. They were there to honour for the final time, winger Shane Williams.
Since making his international debut 12 years ago, Williams has been a legend of Welsh rugby. He is his country's record try scorer, the third highest try scorer of all time, and was awarded the IRB's award for World's Best Player in 2008.
But the esteem that Williams is held in worldwide goes deeper than mere statistics. While many sporting competitors are unfairly castigated for lacking intelligence, it's axiomatic that it is a sphere of life where athleticism and physicality tends to rule. This is magnified in a sport like rugby union, where bodies collide as a matter of course. Having played the sport briefly as a teenager, I can attest that if you have a low pain threshold then it's not the sport for you.
Williams was a man who did not fit the profile of a rugby player. Only 5'7" tall, and barely weighing over 11st on his debut, this was not someone who could thrive in rugby union's "land of the giants". You only have to look at the photo accompanying this post to see what I mean.
As a child, he was told, "You have talent, but you're a bit too small." As a teenager, "You have talent, but you're a bit too small." When he played for his club, Neath, many thought, "He's good, but he's a bit small." Even after making it to the Welsh national side and scoring on his debut, pundits and coaches alike said to him, "You won't make it at the top level being the size you are."
Williams, an unassuming and relatively sensitive type, took many of these criticisms to heart. Despite possessing whippet-like speed, sizzling mobility, and one of the most devastating sidesteps that would leave opponents grasping at thin air, it seemed that these gifts were not enough for seasoned rugby union observers, and it very nearly led to the sport being robbed of one of its leading lights for a generation.
Rather than work on his aforementioned skills, Williams turned into what journalist Stephen Jones has described as a "gym monkey". Believing that bulk and muscle were necessary for him to survive in rugby union's jungle, Williams' talent was blunted. His scything incisiveness began to lack a cutting edge. Not only this, but it caused him to repeatedly pick up injuries. No longer able to penetrate opposing defences at will, Williams was only used by Wales sporadically and was eventually dropped from the team in 2002.
This setback, combined with constant hamstring trouble left Williams downcast and he considered quitting the sport, aged only 25. But something clicked. Williams realised that the critics were right. He was not a natural rugby player. But it was only him that realised he could work this to his advantage. He was more than natural. He was preternatural.
Williams ditched the obsession with lifting weights, and got back to doing what he was good at. He was a key element in the Wales team that won two Six Nations Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008. After 85 games and 58 tries, he retired after last weekend's international against Australia, at the age of 34. Despite losing the game 24-18, the ending was fairytale stuff; Williams scoring a try with the final touch of the game.
He was not just respected as a player, but beloved as a man. Many think it is because he was a microcosm of Welsh rugby union. The sport is followed with a religious fervour in the small country, and has a reputation for playing the sport with dazzling flair. The link between Williams and his nation is inextricable.
But more than that. Williams represented every person who wanted to make it in the world of sport and was treated with derision for being smaller than the norm.
It brings to mind one of the best children's stories to come from America, "The Little Engine That Could". A story of a tiny train performing a task expected of a train twice its size. Being told he can't achieve it, the engine triumphs over adversity, assisted by repeating a simple mantra, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!"
Sports stars like Barry Sanders and Michael Jordan can relate to this, and so can Williams. A true legend of rugby union, Shane Williams was the sport's, "little engine that could". He thought he could, he thought he could, and he thought he could, and eventually, yes Shane, you did.
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