Analysis: The return of Liam Williams
The suspension of rugby while nations work to get the spread of Covid-19 under control has meant Scarlets fans haven’t seen him back in action yet. However, Williams is definitely a case where we can look back to look forward.
Williams was a superb player when he left Scarlets, as he immediately proved on the British and Irish Lions series in New Zealand that summer, but he has only added to his ability and range since and was one of the best fullbacks in the world in 2019 before injury struck.
It’s no secret, for instance, that former Wales coach Warren Gatland sometimes worried about his indiscipline. As recently as the 2018 Six Nations, Gatland substituted Williams before he could return from the sin bin out of concern he might earn a second yellow. That’s one area where he has improved, with the fullback/winger giving away only a single penalty in twelve important games for Wales during 2019.
RugbyPass examines his last two games in a Scarlets jersey and his exploits since then to consider what the region’s fans can expect from Williams in the future.
Liam Williams: the attacker
Williams has always been a lovely runner and, from early in his career, has been compared with Wales and Lions great JPR Williams because of his counter-attacking ability. The space allowed to a fullback creates opportunities in attack but Wiliams is equally devastating in attack on the wing.
For Scarlets, under then-head coach Wayne Pivac, he was often used as a finisher on the wing, as part of the balance Pivac liked across his back three (ballplayer, linkman, finisher), rather than a fullback. He showed his threat as a finisher in the Pro12 final against Munster, scoring the first of Scarlets’ six tries that afternoon.
Scarlets had an advantage, so there was no risk in Rhys Patchell’s speculative kick but, such was Williams’ form at the time, it would have been a good tactic even without that safety net.
Later, he popped up on the opposite wing to confuse the Munster defence, drawing two defenders as Scott Williams took advantage of that confusion to put Gareth Davies through for their third try in 27 minutes.
Just after leaving Scarlets, he gave the most well-known example of his threat in attack for the British and Irish Lions, setting up one of the greatest Lions tries ever scored from fullback in a move straight out of his former team’s playbook.
He didn’t lose his touch at Saracens either, scoring 19 tries in 31 games as we won a European cup and domestic double. Here, his threat as a runner and finisher from the wing is clear.
Liam Williams: the aerial king
It’s well-known that, before his break in rugby, Williams worked as a scaffolder and his head for heights and tenacity are often raised in connection with his former career. Indeed, fans at Parc Y Scarlets always knew the “bomb-diffuser”, as he nicknamed himself, was a safe pair of hands when needed.
That aspect of his game has only improved and he is now surely one of the best in the world under the high ball. In the 2019 Six Nations, England had embarrassed both Ireland and France in their opening fixtures with their precision execution of a kicking game plan. Against Wales, with Williams roaming the backfield, they had far less success.
In fact, Wales eventually secured the victory with their superior aerial game and it was no surprise that Williams featured as they did. Josh Adams’ superb take and finish grabs the eye but the presence of Williams, chasing down the high ball, adds an extra element for the defending Elliot Daly to consider and makes Adams’ job just that little bit easier.
Saracens, who have a superb kicking game, have not been shy about exploiting Williams’ talent in the air. In the 2019 Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Glasgow Warriors, Saracens found themselves conceding the first try. They retaliated immediately when Alex Goode, stepping in as fly half, chipped the ball for the carefully loitering Williams who made no mistake in getting his team back on track for what turned out to be a rout.
Liam Williams: the clutch man
In big moments, the best players come through. Williams, like Scarlets, might be better-known for his attacking prowess but he can put in a shift in defence too. In fact, Scarlets had the second-meanest defence in the Pro12 in their title winning season and Williams was a big part of that.
Here, he demonstrates his ability to make an impact in defence when it matters. As Leinster intercept the ball and break, he tracks back and successfully steals the ball, keeping the Irish favourites out and maintaining Scarlets’ lead.
He has continued to use his turnover ability to thwart Leinster in tournament finals, making a similarly crucial intervention for Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup 2019 final. The game was poised at 10-10, with Saracens having dragged themselves back from 10-0 down, and there were 48 minutes on the clock.
Williams was the last man and, as such, cannot afford a mistake. He reads the play, steps out of the defensive line with perfect timing, and tackles Garry Ringrose. He then gets back onto his feet and successfully jackals the ball.
Saracens dominated the remainder of the match, scoring an unanswered 10 further points. Much is often made of so-called momentum in big games but Williams’ efforts here would seem like a good example where a single action can shift the outcome of a game.
Of course, Williams is a fullback so the aerial and kicking aspects of the game are his bread and butter. But, unlike fellow Scarlet Leigh Halfpenny, he is not known for his goal-kicking. When it mattered, however, that didn’t stop him.
Here, with Steff Evans sent off just before half-time, Scarlets have been defending their lead for the duration of the second half. Their fly-half and main kicker, Rhys Patchell was substituted earlier so Williams is the designated kicker when the referee awards them a penalty. Despite the pressure of the RDS crowd, Williams calmly slots the ball to stretch the lead to 9 points.
He would go on to successfully kick another penalty, taking the game away entirely from Leinster. For good measure, he converted two tries in the final against Munster as well.
Liam Williams: the total package?
So what can Scarlets fans expect from the return of one of their favourites? A complete player, in attack and defence.
How exactly he shows that depends on the playing style new head coach Glenn Delaney implements but the Scarlets management have been keen to maintain continuity in terms of the approach on the field. There is every chance Williams will get to show the full range of the gifts he has honed in his time away.
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