Heralding in the next generation
November 29, 2011
Rhodri Williams showed the same instinct as generations of Welsh rugby in his appearance against the Saints © Getty Images
Apparently it didn't make the highlights packages, so only those who were there or watching the live transmission saw a truly compelling moment towards the end of the Northampton v Scarlets Heineken Cup match the weekend before last.
Saints were pressing, with some desperation as they were 12 points down and only five minutes remained, but were still not totally out of it. Play reached the Scarlets' 22, and their replacement scrum-half took possession with Saints attackers looming in his vicinity. Rhodri Williams is 18 and a half. He'd only been on for a couple of minutes. If he'd hammered the ball as far down the pitch as he was able, nobody would have criticised him. It would have been the prudent thing to do.
Instead, as if channelling some folk-memory of Scarlets immortal Phil Bennett bemusing the All Blacks close on four decades ago, he delivered three exquisite side-steps and made a break down the left-hand touchline. It takes something to draw a gasp from the somewhat blasé inhabitants of the press benches, particularly in the closing minutes of an evening game as looming deadlines inevitably distract attention from the action, but this did it.
It was the perfect conclusion to a superb Scarlets display, in which they defended brilliantly and took incisively opportunist advantage of Saints errors, doing so with a speed and dexterity of movement, handling and support play that made their hosts look cumbersome and slow-witted.
It was further evidence that something is stirring in Wales. It can be seen as well in a player like Matthew Morgan of the Ospreys, a comparative veteran of 19 whose early efforts for his region have confirmed the glowing reports flowing up from Welsh Premiership matches with Swansea.
A new generation is arriving, and playing with the conviction and enterprise that have always marked the Welsh game at its best. They are players who think on their feet, playing the situation and not the coaching manual. They incarnate Gerald Davies's philosophy that 'rugby is a game of calculated risks'.
It is of course a question of how you calculate. Welsh players have over time been likelier to take the risk than, say, their English or South African counterparts, but the differences are those of degree. The best Welsh teams also had a streak of ruthless pragmatism. But what stood out was that touch of wit, invention and fantasy. It expresses a basic rugby aesthetic which, as Gareth Williams and Dai Smith pointed out in Fields of Praise can be traced back to the early days of the Welsh game.
It is highly practical, because it compensates for the advantage that opponents may have in physique and power - as Northampton patently did in the scrums against the Scarlets - but also appeals to Welsh national self-image. When you are a small nation next door to a much larger one, the appeal of small, quick-witted guys flatfooting larger, slower ones has a natural appeal.
All of this was welcome evidence that those fine displays in the World Cup were not a fluke, and that there is further promise beyond the immediate confines of Warren Gatland's squad. It also comes as Wales says goodbye to the player who has incarnated that style and self-image as well as anybody in the national team's history.
Saturday's match against Australia has an official commercial title. It might also be called the 'Hailing our World Cup heroes (or as many of them as aren't injured or playing in France or England) International', or simply the 'Servicing the WRU Overdraft Test'. But for most it will be an afternoon in which to say goodbye to Shane Williams, that supreme modern incarnation of those ancient traditions of darting, diminutive deceptiveness.
We must hope he gets an afternoon on which those qualities, on display for the last time in a Wales shirt, gets full rein. Which isn't to ask for a basketball match, but simply one in which both teams play with positive intent and that the risk calculation does not always produce the percentage option. Australia, on the evidence of their demolition of the Barbarians at Twickenham, would seem to be up for it.
If not quite matching the half-back tradition to which Rhodri Williams and Matthew Morgan might just be the next successors but one or two, the lineage of Welsh wing-play is still pretty impressive. Consider Teddy Morgan and Willie Llewellyn from the first Golden Age, Johnny Williams, Ken Jones, Dewi Bebb, Gerald Davies, JJ Williams and Ieuan Evans.
Shane is true and worthy successor to that tradition, sharing with his great predecessors the sense of possibility that sets a crowd roaring whenever a great wing takes possession and a lighting ability to spot and exploit the split-second or half-yard of space that is all they need to turn possibility into points. He has been both the sharpest weapon and the greatest entertainer in Welsh rugby, a dedicated professional who continued at the same time to remind us that rugby can be fun - and looked as though he was enjoying it as much as any of his fans. He leaves us, as the best farewells invariably do, wanting more.
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