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FEATURE Liam Williams shows his enduring value to Wales as Wallabies lie in wait

Liam Williams shows his enduring value to Wales as Wallabies lie in wait
2 weeks ago

Ann Hodges hit the headlines as the first documented person to be struck by a meteorite, with the incident in Alabama seeing her walloped by a flying piece of space rock that had split into three fragments.

It’s just a thought, but had it been Liam Williams on the receiving end in the Yellowhammer State that day, there’s a reasonable chance he would have caught whatever the heavens had thrown down and lumped it whence it came.

How skilled and brave was the Welshman under the high ball against South Africa a week last Saturday?

One moment, in particular, sticks in the mind and will continue to do so for quite a while yet.

It came after Grant Williams had hoisted a well-nigh perfect box kick in the final quarter. The split-second the Springboks’ replacement scrum-half put boot to ball, the world champions’ left wing Makazole Mapimpi took off as if his very existence on the planet depended on the ball being reclaimed.

Barely 30 metres away, Liam Williams prepared to take the catch with his body fully opened up, there being no other way for him to get his positioning and judgement right in the micro-seconds he had to play with before the 3.36pm express from Eastern Cape Province arrived.

However you sliced it, the short-term outlook didn’t appear great for Wales’ No. 14.

Would his nerve even hold up? A daft question.

Liam Williams
Liam Williams showed against South Africa that he remains a superlative presence in the air (Photo Andrew Kearns/Getty Images)

The player known as Sanjay duly collected at the very moment that South Africa’s high-speed wing clattered into him. Not only that, but after hitting the deck with a thump, he still managed to present the ball on a plate for his forwards.

It was courage on a different level.

Here was a player returning to the Test scene after starting just five matches in Japan since the World Cup, and acquitting himself more than admirably. There were one or two indications that he was in need of the game – of course there were – but, generally, he looked what he has always looked, a Test animal to his core. It was as if he had time-travelled from the Wales Grand Slam year of 2019 to show some of the new generation how it was truly done.

The shame was there were not more opportunities in attack and Wales’ wings were largely restricted to chasing kicks and fielding opposition bombs, but the tall, rangy figure on the right flank still looked the part. Along with his aerial work, there was an interception and several solid hits, one in particular on Mapimpi that forced him backwards at a rate of knots.

There was even the sight of Williams in full peacemaking mode, calming down potentially combustible situations which he might have been tempted to approach with a more animated brand of diplomacy in his younger days.

Williams has 90 Test appearances on the board now, but Warren Gatland thinks Wales can get him through to the next World Cup.

That’s not to say his spirit has been in any way quenched. He knows only one way to play and would be vastly diminished if he stopped operating that way. It is what makes him the player he is.

But maybe the passing of time has equipped him with maturity.

He has 90 Test appearances on the board now, but Warren Gatland thinks Wales can get him through to the next World Cup. Williams’ old coach at the Scarlets, Nigel Davies, who granted him his chance in senior rugby, doesn’t rule out such a scenario, either.

Liam Williams
When Wales bowed out of the RWC last October, some pondered whether we would see Liam Williams in a Wales shirt again (Photo CHRISTOPHE SIMON/Getty Images)

“There are two things that will determine whether Liam is still playing for Wales at the 2027 World Cup,” said Davies. “The first is whether he remains largely injury free and his body holds up. Secondly, there’s the question of whether he’s up for it mentally.

“Because of the way he’s wired, I can’t see him dropping off mentally, but, of course, it’s hard to be sure of these things. Like a lot of players, he could potentially lose a yard of pace as the years go by. The other side of the coin is he’ll have more experience and he could adapt his game. If anyone can do it, it’ll be someone like Liam with his mentality.”

Those takes of the high ball under extreme pressure against South Africa and the readiness to put his body on the line in defence showed conclusively that Williams’ appetite for battle remains intact. Maybe it will never leave him. Perhaps it’s in his DNA.

As a player, he’s the closest thing I’ve seen to JPR Williams. He is absolutely fearless, just as JPR used to be.

Nigel Davies

Ever since his days as a teenager with Waunarlwydd rugby club, he has repeatedly shown he would fight a grizzly bear for the last salmon on the bank if it would move his team a smidgen closer to victory.

“He is a wonderful competitor,” said Davies, a former Wales coach.

“At the Scarlets he gained the respect of the other players immediately because everyone knew how much he would give for the team.

“The pitch is where he expresses himself and does his talking.

“As a player, he’s the closest thing I’ve seen to JPR Williams. He is absolutely fearless, just as JPR used to be.

“When I first saw him play, in a local game for Waunarlwydd, he was at fly-half and there was nothing of him. He was pretty much a boy playing in a man’s arena and I thought he was going to get destroyed. But he was extraordinary, putting in big hits on opponents and driving through tackles. You could see things straight away that marked him out – his ability, his enthusiasm, his commitment and his skill. I remember watching the game and thinking: ‘This kid has got something.’”

Davies is not alone in having found first impressions deceiving when it comes to Williams. His old Scarlets team-mate Rob McCusker was on a similar beat when he entered the physio room in Llanelli and encountered a youngster who did not fit the accepted template for an L-plater with next to zero miles on the clock:  “I walked in and this little skinny kid started chopsing at me. I thought to myself: ‘Who’s this?’

“But once you get to know him, you realise that’s Liam, that’s the way he is.

“He came straight in and put both feet under the table.

“He was actually a great team-mate, someone who was popular with the boys.

“I’d say stepping up to senior rugby a bit later than most allowed him to express himself more.

Liam brings a lot off the field with his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality. As the old line goes, you can take the boy out of Waunarlwydd, but you can’t remove Waun from the boy.

“Sometimes, boys can be afraid of doing their own thing in the academy set-up. But Liam didn’t care when he came to the Scarlets. Of course, he was bothered about the result and how he played, but he never operated with a black cloud over him. He never had the worry of ‘am I being watched here? Am I going to get a contract? Should I play in a certain way?’

“He just used to go out on the field and do whatever he wanted.

“Sometimes, you’d be, like: ‘Crikey, where’s he off now?’ Then, just when you’d think he’d run up a blind alley, he’d beat a couple of big blokes, emerge the other side and be away.”

Williams will add balance to the Wales squad in Australia this summer, partly because of his on-pitch qualities but also because he brings a lot off the field with his what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality. As the old line goes, you can take the boy out of Waunarlwydd, but you can’t remove Waun from the boy.

Liam Williams
Liam Williams had a hugely successful period with Saracens where he was hugely popular (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Rewind to his first week at Saracens after his move from the Scarlets in 2017, with the former Wales international Dom Day starting at the club at the same time. “Within a week of me and him arriving at the club, we were on a pre-season trip to Bermuda, one of the famous Saracens socials, with all the coaches and players there,” the big lock later recalled. “Sanjay had put away a few beers and went straight up to the director of rugby Mark McCall, wrapped an arm around his neck and said: ‘You don’t know what you signed when you signed me, boy. You’ve signed a bomb defuser.’”

It wasn’t boasting either. “It was just Liam,” said Day. “The thing about Saracens, they don’t try to recruit the same type of people. They want a mix of personalities. With Sanjay you had that added value. He’s just a brilliant bloke. He gave the Welsh a good reputation at the club, and everyone was devastated to see him go. From a fans and players’ point of view, he was massive there.”

Yet Injuries have meant it hasn’t always been easy for a player who wears his heart on his sleeve. There have been protracted spells of inactivity that have tested his patience and hindered his attempts to build momentum into his career.

The Sarries adventure was massive because he was playing with a lot of very good players in a different setting and benefited hugely, but, then again, he brought a lot to them, too.

Kevin George, ex-Scarlets development officer

But maybe all the time on the sidelines will have a late-career benefit in that he has been comparatively lightly played over the years and so should have a fair amount of petrol left in the tank.

Another figure from Williams’ days in west Wales, the former Scarlets development chief Kevin George, feels there’s another reason why the back-three man may go on for a while yet. “The different experiences at different clubs have allowed him to freshen himself up,” said George.

“The Sarries adventure was massive because he was playing with a lot of very good players in a different setting and benefited hugely, but, then again, he brought a lot to them, too. I think there’s an element that he’s reinvented himself on the field, while retaining the core elements of his game.

“You have to adapt in rugby because the sport changes so quickly. You look at the boy who plays wing for the Blues and the All Blacks, Mark Telea. He is more like a scrum-half with the way he picks and goes. He’s in the thick of it all the time. With his footwork, he bamboozles people around the guard and he’s strong enough to break tackles. Liam was a bit like that coming through. He would fight for every inch and was so hard to put down. To an extent, he’s still like it, while adding bits to his game.”

Liam Williams
Williams is still the down-to-earth boy from Waunarlwydd who went on to find success with the Scarlets and Wales (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Williams hasn’t changed hugely away from the pitch, though.  “He is still pretty much the same boy who came through the door at Llanelli when he was a teenager,” said George.

“He’s moved on and experienced so much, but he never, ever passes you without saying hello. During all his time away, I’d see him around and he’d come over, shake hands and have a chat. He has never had airs and graces. If I asked him to sign a picture for my grandson, say, it would be done straightaway. He’s never forgotten where he’s from. He’s not that kind of guy.”

Throughout Williams’ career there has been a debate over his best position. He has proven equally reliable at full-back and wing, and with Cameron Winnett starting to emerge, Gatland picked up out wide against South Africa. There’s still an argument he’s more effective at the back, though.

“I’d see him as a No. 15 at this stage of his career,” said Davies. “To play international rugby on the wing, there’s a requirement to have a certain level of pace. We don’t know whether Liam can maintain that level.

“So I’d see him at the back.

Yesteryear’s fire breather who incurred the wrath of officials 13 times in his first 16 Tests is these days one of the Wales team’s senior statesmen.

“He’s one of the safest full-backs in the game. He reads play very well, having played across the back-three for so long, and, because he used to operate at 10, he knows what fly-halves are seeing and so he knows what to expect.

“But with all this, a lot will depend on who’s coming through.”

So much has changed in the Wales dressing room since the World Cup barely nine months ago.

But Gatland’s squad are stronger for having Willliams back involved.

Yesteryear’s fire breather who incurred the wrath of officials 13 times in his first 16 Tests is these days one of the Wales team’s senior statesmen.

It’s been quite some journey, hopefully with some way to go yet.

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