'Comical Ali' broadcasts a serious warning for Leinster
Published 15/04/2015 | 02:30
They call him Comical Ali. They always have done. Even though Ali Williams' serious achievements strongly suggest that the clownish persona masks an ultimate professional.
The difference is he always knows when to stop laughing.
After all, this is someone who once turned up for training in a Spiderman costume; another time he impersonated All Black namesake Sonny Bill in a pre-World Cup final press conference.
As IRFU head honcho David Nucifora can testify from his time at the Auckland Blues, there were times when the second-row took it too far, like when he was dumped from his Super Rugby side.
That ultimately led the World Cup winner to join the growing exodus of Kiwis to France where, as part of Toulon's galacticos, he has helped them dominate Europe; he will retire this summer with, he hopes, a second European winners' medal to add to his illustrious haul.
"I made my debut in Twickenham a long time ago," says the 33-year-old, recalling his 2002 debut against England, the first of his 77 caps.
Williams moves to London with his family this summer and a freshly minted Champions Cup medal would fit snugly on the sideboard.
But he will still enjoy a smile as he smells the roses.
"You should be interviewing me down here," he says from the sun-drenched Med as temperatures soar into the 20s. This is a player who typifies a collective who seemingly feel little, if any pressure. After all, they have done - and won - it all before.
Asked who may pose the biggest threat this weekend, he deadpans, "Wayne Barnes. Joke!" Leinster fans may nod in agreement; Kiwis still recall the Englishman's role in their 2007 World Cup loss in Cardiff.
"I have never forgotten," he says. "But I never hold any grudges." Serious and humorous in the same breath.
He dismisses those who may seek to target the much referenced 'ageing pack' - "We lay down the Zimmer frames on, oh, Wednesday or Thursday. . ."
Or how Toulon have changed without the talismanic Jonny Wilkinson: "I knew we wouldn't get through a chat without mentioning this man."
All joking aside - and there is lots of it - Williams, like the other gnarled veterans, such as Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Matt Giteau (the list is endless) is a proven winner and hungry for much, much more.
"In New Zealand I was probably just about finished, the body had had enough. The beauty of this place is that they really look after us and you've got such a group of older guys that it doesn't affect the team as much for you not to train as much as you do when you're younger.
"It's very much about enjoyment, and once you've got it in your blood, in terms of that competitive streak, you can't really lose it. As soon as we get on the field, we instantly flip into thinking 'we're here so we may as well win'.
"It sounds very simple, but basically it's a whole group of guys with a mutual respect that have played against each other for so long. We just love having fun and winning, and that just continues here.
"It is a mindset. The more you play, the more you have been on winning teams, the easier it is to win. It almost helps the team come together to get that winning attitude and hold an advantage over other teams who probably have not won the accolades."
Leinster once had that muscle memory but last year's insipid exit to this side on French soil a round earlier, added to indifferent form this season, may seem to minimise their threat. Not in Williams' eyes, though.
"Leinster have got a great forward pack," says the man who helped destroy the Lions' lineout in the 2005 'blackout' tour.
"They have that physicality, we all know that. Very well organised and drilled. They are a team that likes to attack. In terms of opposition, they don't really have any weaknesses.
"You have to get yourself really focussed and concentrate on exactly what you are going to do because trying to worry too much about them is the time you will lose your accuracy in what you do.
"I think they are a great outfit. You only have to see what they have done in the past to know where they will be and where their mindset will be.
"They would have learned from how we played last year. You can only do what the opposition let you and you've got to find a way around that. We played quite well that day and really went for them, gave them limited time and space.
"For both sides that is the key: to stop that time and space. Both sides have huge threats all over the field. I don't see it being too different to last year"
His is a serious message. "It is going to be a game of 15 people just bashing it out and fighting for inches rather than running rugby and that stuff."