'At training, I'd think, 'I'm s****ing my pants a bit here'. It was so intense. I didn't want to hurt my teammates'
Chuckling away in his GlastonBARRY baseball cap and surrounded by the laughter of his three young daughters, Nick Williams cut a contented figure. At 36, he has had twelve years as a professional rugby player in Europe and with it, all the accoutrements that come with playing for some of the most storied clubs.
For Williams, having food on the table and space to run around with his family is something he can now take for granted, but it hasn’t always been that way. The plush environs of his South Wales home are a far cry from the modest surroundings he was raised in South Auckland. Surrounded by his Polynesian brothers and sisters, money was scarce.
Williams sat back when asked to recall his childhood as if casting his mind back to those carefree days when a rugby career was a distant speck in the distance. “Growing up in South Auckland is your equivalent of growing up in the Valleys, I guess,” he told RugbyPass. “There wasn’t too much extra floating around, but we were a tight unit. I had seven siblings; five sisters and two brothers, all raised by a single lady, my mum, Aolele.”
The modern-day pro’s staple is a life of boot deals, free stash and adulation from devoted fans but growing up, Williams had no such luxuries. “It was a very humble upbringing. It wasn’t even paycheck to paycheck because we didn’t know when the next paycheck was coming. We weren’t alone, just one of thousands of Polynesians struggling to make ends meet.”
How Williams and his siblings made it through was in large part thanks to the church and his faith. “My mum had jobs here and there, and my sisters worked when they could, but the local church was a big part of our life. They put food on the table so I had to be quick to get my share with the eight of us.”
Reflecting on those formative years, Williams was sanguine about what is really needed to get by. “You don’t realise the strength of humans until you’re put into pressure situations and you have to make things work. That’s what I see with Polynesians.
“They have so much respect for their parents because of the graft they do to make a better life for people like myself. It didn’t really faze me at the time because it was all I knew. What you’re taught in church is to be happy with what you have and to show humility. You soon realise there are nice things out there but ultimately, they are just materialistic.”
To most average-sized folk, Williams is one big goose. At 6ft 3ins and 20 stone, he was described recently as van-sized. With this reminder, ‘Big Nick’ chuckled. “Well, we’re not the smallest race but I was average-sized growing up. There were a lot bigger than me out there.”
Life took a turn for Williams when he moved to the more affluent North Shore. “I wouldn’t say it opened my eyes but I realised there were opportunities. I was a rugby league boy growing up in South Auckland but at my new school, they didn’t play league, only union. I figured out pretty quickly I could get to the try-line a lot quicker if I ran in a straight line rather than taking the scenic route.”
When pressed on the reason for him upping sticks, Williams revealed it was a family tragedy that acted as a stimulus for the chance of scenery. “Growing up I was very blessed to have my grandmother helping my mum out. She was the rock of the family and Nana (Laurosa) took me under her wing.
“The main reason I left South Auckland was because my older brother had got in trouble with the authorities and was sentenced to time in prison. He served his time but within two years of coming out, he was killed in a car crash. My nana could see me going down that path so she moved us to the North Shore where we had some other family. They were desperate for me not to end up like my brother.”
He was only 13 or 14 but Williams was determined to make something of himself. “Anthony’s death was a game-changer. I know it’s a tough story but instead of dwelling on it and feeling sorry for myself, I used it as ammunition to better myself.
“My younger brother Lee followed me to the North Shore and while I wouldn’t say anything justified his death, good did come out of it. I hope Anthony is looking down on us now thinking at least I didn’t die in vain. It was why I decided to give rugby a crack and I’m forever thankful I made that move. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be speaking to you right now.”
Barely a dry eye in the building during this morning's team meeting.
— Cardiff Blues (@cardiff_blues) December 19, 2019
As Williams filled out, his talent for skittling players and soft offloading skills were earmarked by eagle-eyed rugby coaches. A call-up for the New Zealand Colts was followed swiftly by selection in the U21s squad, but Williams still felt like the South Auckland outsider.
“I was kind of the outcast. So many of the squad had been together since their teens but I was fortunate because a few of the guys I’d grown up with were there, like Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko. I hadn’t seen them for years but it felt like we’d never been away.”
While Williams played some NPC rugby and secured his first Super Rugby contract, he was still some way from realising his All Blacks dream. Even a call-up for the New Zealand A team made him feel further away than ever.
“The All Blacks A team is like the Wolfhounds or the Saxons. Loads of people congratulated me, but I knew the next step was huge. I was true to myself. I thought, ‘They’ve got Richie (McCaw), JC (Jerry Collins), Rodney (So’oialo) and perhaps ten boys ahead of me before I can pull on that All Blacks shirt.”
At 24 Williams made the decision to look further afield and say farewell to his family, a real wrench after the challenges of his childhood. His next stop was Cork with one of the best clubs on the planet – Munster. For Williams, his two years there was a degree in the University of Life that wasn’t without its pitfalls.
“It was an experience and a half pitching up in Ireland. Looking back I don’t know if I was ready for it but boy it made me grow up quickly. There were so many legends there – Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy. I knew from the off I was going to struggle.”
When pressed on what makes the Munster machine tick over, Williams took a second to pause. “I wouldn’t call it arrogance but somehow they beat you mentally. They have this aura. When I was playing for them, you could see how deflated other sides were when you were running out. They were the Manchester United of their time.
“Even being part of the squad was intimidating. At training, I’d think, ‘I’m s****ing my pants a bit here’. It was so intense. I didn’t want to hurt my teammates, but they would be going at it hell for leather on the paddock. You’re like, ‘Wow’. Some sides can be brilliant at training but fall apart on Saturday. Not Munster. Their mental toughness was something I’d never experienced before.”
The old adage is that all roads lead to Rome but for Williams, the next stop on his nomadic life was a little further north, to professional newcomers Aironi. With established Italian internationals Carlo del Fava, Marco Bortolami and Quintin Geldenhuys, Williams was intrigued to find what the standard of rugby there was like.
Even though he was living la dolce vita, subliminally he was at a crossroads in his life – both professionally and personally. “I’d tell any of the younger boys to play a few years in France or Italy because of the continental lifestyle.
“We didn’t have kids back then, so in my first year I got myself a little Vespa and we trundled around. At any given opportunity we’d head off to Venice, Florence or Milan. It felt a long, long way away from South Auckland.”
The No8 said that in many ways rugby was furthest from my mind in Italy. Aironi were going through a teething phase and Williams found out his partner was pregnant. “It was goodbye, Vespa, hello pram-life. That’s when s*** got real and we had to get to back to reality.”
— PRO14 RUGBY (at ?) (@PRO14Official) July 5, 2020
The reality for a period was the realisation their four-year European adventure might have to come to an end but serendipity has a funny way of intervening and a phone call from the blue saw Williams’ life change course again.
“Mark Anscombe, my first coach in New Zealand, got wind of the fact I was thinking about heading home and gave me a bell. He said, ‘You’re not going back to New Zealand. Get your big Polynesian backside up to Belfast with me’.
For Williams, the early belief ‘Cowboy’ showed in him paved the way for a life in rugby, so his call merited consideration. “I thought if he hadn’t selected me in my first professional team I wouldn’t have had the career I had. The coaching theory is you get to know the individual off the field to understand how the player ticks. That’s Mark down to a tee.”
While discussing this career juncture, Williams divulged that Anscombe Snr and his wife were actually in his house as he spoke after moving to the UK to support Wales’ 28-cap fly-half, Gareth, whose wife is expecting a baby. Williams quipped his daughters Liana, Mila and Cleo see themselves as surrogate grandparents.
While thoughts of the rain, cold and difficulties in adjusting to Munster raced through his mind, his trust in Anscombe assuaged his fears and he jumped on the plane instead to Belfast instead of returning to New Zealand.
Italy had a colourful history, but Northern Ireland wasn’t left wanting and it was an education for Williams. “I had no idea about the Troubles. I didn’t know anything about the relationship between Catholics and Protestants. It wasn’t the sort of thing you learned about on the other side of the world. You see the Irish flag and the Union Jack flag and you think, ‘Woah, what’s going on here?’”
Williams accepted that to succeed he would have to immerse himself in the culture, something he did with gusto. “I made lifelong friends there, I got married, had my second daughter there so I will always have fond memories of my time at Ravenhill.
“On the pitch, I played some of my best rugby there because Mark knew what made me tick. He knew I wasn’t going to clean out 100 rucks but he knew I’d run through brick walls for him and the team. Rugby’s only a minuscule part of our lives and he knew that if my family was happy, I’d be sweet.”
Ulster built a side that earned the respect of the PRO12 and Europe in the time Williams was there. The Aucklander was quick to pay homage to a set of players who regularly carried the province into the Heineken Cup knockout stages and a 2013 league final.
When rumours of his departure from Belfast started to swirl back in 2016, Williams made an inauspicious start to bonding with his future region’s fans. In a fixture between Ulster and the Cardiff Blues, a mistimed tackle on Rhys Patchell saw the young fly-half leave the field dazed and confused, confining Williams to the social media naughty step. His move to Wales’ capital city was announced a month later.
Williams let out a big laugh on being reminded of this awkward introduction and buried his head. “Yeah, it was an interesting welcome to Welsh rugby. I couldn’t believe it but ironically I’ve actually got quite close to Rhys since. He’s a great lad. We chatted only a few weeks ago.”
One love ?? https://t.co/REJEz4whSt
— Nick Williams (@nick8williams) July 3, 2020
The move across the Irish Sea was a big call for Williams and his two daughters, but what made the decision easier was his wife Gemma missed her sister, who was living in London. “It was a big blessing that Cardiff came in for me. There was interest from France but they work you pretty hard and at 32 I wasn’t sure it was the best move for my body which had been through the mill.”
Rugby-wise, after 85 appearances for the Blues over a four-year period where he has gained the respect of the Arms Park crowd, the undoubted highlight was the 2018 Challenge Cup final win over Gloucester in Bilbao. “That was right up there as one of my best moments in 20-odd years playing rugby. As usual, there was a lot going on off the field at that time so Danny (Wilson) and Jockey (Matt Sherratt) did all they could to get us to focus on lifting the silverware and we did it.”
As one of the Guinness PRO14’s most respected veterans, Williams passed judgement on some fellow Blues back rows and outlined his belief that the capital city club is in decent nick. “Everyone knows Navs (Josh Navidi). He is a freak of nature who punches well above his weight.
“I see the influence of his time in New Zealand in how he approaches the game. As for El (Ellis Jenkins), I had him pegged as a future international who would be earning a lot of caps. He’s a leader but above all just a good person and that’s infectious. He makes you want to be a better person.”
Of the new boys coming through, Williams admitted a few have caught the eye. “I have a lot of time for Jarrod (Evans). He’s very humble but likes to ask questions and is an active listener. Sometimes young pros ask you something but they don’t listen to your answer and you think, ‘Why the hell did you bloody ask?’ Jarrod soaks it up. Seb Davies is another one I’ve looked out for. A quiet kid but a good lad.”
Williams also has time for Evans’ highly-rated half-back partner, Tomos Williams. “Little Tommy is a special character. He has that raw talent. You don’t want to over-coach him, you just want him to play his game.
“He’s your typical No9. Sometimes the biggest bloke on the park will come over and give out and before you know it, Tommy will give him some chops. I’m saying, ‘Tommy, please, I’m blowing out of my arse here, give me a break’. He’s a proper terrier.”
As a father of three who has been through the wringer, Williams has unearthed a paternal side that sets the cultural tone in the Blues squad. “I’ve told lots of the young lads that I’m not going to force it on them but my door is always open – and I don’t just mean rugby.
Have you met our Non Executive Director Nick Williams? Get to know all about him and his role with the Bearhug Pack ? @nick8williams
— Bearhug (@getabearhug) July 3, 2020
“There are so many pressures on the kids these days with social media. Wales is very similar to New Zealand in that rugby is the No1 sport. In New Zealand, there are five million head coaches and it’s the same in Wales where they have three million selectors.”
With Cardiff legend Taufa’ao Filise around the corner and the ageless Maama Molitika a personal trainer at his wife’s gym, Williams has decided to lay down roots after years of travelling. “The UK is all my daughters know so we’ll see what we can do post-rugby here for the next five or six years and see what happens.”
With his playing future still unclear amidst the financial Armageddon of Covid-19, Williams has started preparing for life after rugby with a non-executive director role at Bearhug, a producer of muscle sleeves and joint supports. He quipped that his 90-year-old neighbour knows as much as him about whether he’ll be playing next season. He nevertheless feels the Blues have recruited prudently for 2021.”
“We’ve made some decent signings but the one that stands out is Cory Hill. He is a huge signing for us. I used to hate playing against him. He’s tall, awkward and puts himself about. We’ve had well-documented issues at the lineout so he will be a massive help. I haven’t seen much of Sam (Moore) yet but he’s a big boy. As long as he can stay on the field and stay healthy, he has a good future ahead of him.”
It’s unsurprising Williams now wants to find something which allows him to give back. “If you’ve asked me five years ago if I fancied coaching, I’d have said, ‘Hell no’. But my mindset has changed over the last 18 months. I just think with the amount of experience I’ve had it would be rude not to.”
From the mean streets of South Auckland to a welcome in the hillsides of South Wales, Williams has led quite the rugby life. As for what comes next, watch this space.
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