Friday 28 July 2017

Unsung hero strikes right notes - Duncan Williams emerges as key to Munster revival

Duncan Williams (pictured) has stepped up to the plate in the absence of the injured Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
Duncan Williams (pictured) has stepped up to the plate in the absence of the injured Conor Murray. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Surely there has to come a time when the hackneyed unsung hero needs an accompaniment of lyrics.

But then again, Munster scrum-half Duncan Williams has not always been assailed by an aria of acceptance down Munster way.

Now, with Conor Murray's apparently innocuous stinger injury seemingly developing into something of rather more serious import than first imagined when sustained in the Six Nations, the Lions lockdown's understudy has emerged into the spotlight.

It seems determined not to blind him; if anything, he will shine just as brightly.

Perennially heralded, even by those who know him most intimately, as being unheralded; forever alluded to as being renowned for being unrenowned; always rated as being under-rated, one seemed finally convinced that he was, indubitably, all three.

Unheralded. Unrenowned. Under-rated. If everyone keeps saying you are unsung, the faint praise can damn you for all time.

Shadows

Not any more.

Like so many who have emerged from the shadows of Munster's two-year European knockout hiatus, Williams typifies the gritty determination - you can see it in Billy Holland and Andrew Conway - of players, disregard by others but brimming with self-belief.

Not for nothing has it taken him longer than others.

Last week, he read an interview team-mate Ian Keatley did with our sister paper, the Sunday Independent, when the Dubliner spoke of his anguish after getting the bird from his home supporters in Thomond Park in December 2015.

Williams identified with every word.

For he had suffered a similar fate at the same venue nine months earlier at precisely the same moment, the 72nd minute, no less public and no less wounding.

Munster had begun that season shrouded in the blanket of self-generated controversy after leaked emails had detailed the shortcomings of some squad players; when Williams was substituted late in an opening-day home defeat to a moderate Edinburgh side, some of the 13,000 or so crowd vocalised their own interpretation.

Their reaction was not a requiem for an unsung hero.

We remember Anthony Foley lamenting afterwards that Williams had looked good when his pack served good ball and struggled when they did not.

It is ever thus for the man scrambling beneath a pile of tonnage either subsiding upon him or propelling themselves forward at a rate of knots. The random but audible voices that cheered Williams' substitution merely responded to the backward steps.

That year, it wouldn't get any easier for either the player or his team even though they reached a Guinness PRO12 final, losing heavily to a rampant Glasgow.

Williams would start that game, too, in the absence of an injured Murray but, with Paul O'Connell's final game in red also producing its fair amount of backward steps, more eloquent elegies were required elsewhere.

Two years on, so much has changed, in so many ways; it is apt to recall Foley's own words in his final season as head coach: "We weren't the greatest people in the world last year, we are not the worst people in the world at the moment."

It hadn't been easy for Williams in a number of ways; regarded as very much more than an unsung hero at school in CBC perhaps vaulted expectations too far beyond the patience of others, rather than himself.

"He was known as the next best thing," says a former team-mate. "Destined for greatness and all that."

Trouble was, greatness was already firmly established as he graduated from the Academy into the professional ranks. How does one follow Peter Stringer and Tomás O'Leary?

Or, for that matter, when the latter duo are peremptorily elbowed aside by an emerging superstar from Limerick and the third best scrum-half in Cork is still on the outside looking in?

For all that, Williams has persevered and, as the team has thrived, so has he. Learning to blot out the outside noise - he professes not to hear the crowd on match days - he has learned to become less hard on himself.

He asks himself to do not what others expect of him, but what he expects of himself. "He was never going to be a Stringer or anyone else," adds another former player. "He had to be who he was and his basics are phenomenal.

"He'd a lot of injuries too, and then the criticism used to get to him too but not any more."

"Maybe he's not in the perfect mould of a traditional scrum-half, but he's always fit," offers Rassie Erasmus, who wouldn't be doling out a two-year deal if he didn't rate his man.

"I think in six years he's never been not available, he's got a great kicking game and he makes unbelievable tackles. Conor is a world-class nine but I think Duncan is one of the true Munster guys.

"I'm glad he got an opportunity in a quarter-final to show what he is worth."

Niall Scannell offers a players' perspective; the only one that matters. "Duncan is a players' player. He's always there, he always leads trainings.

"I'll be honest, as a player, I had no nerves about him whatsoever against Toulouse.

"From the outside looking in, it might seem like, 'Oh, Conor Murray is a loss,' but we're massively confident in Duncan and I think everyone saw there on the big stage what we can do.

"He did the same for us at the latter stages when Murray got injured two years ago and he did it again today. It wasn't a massive surprise to any of us, but I'm still delighted for him that he did so well."

Time now, perhaps, to start singing the praises of someone unsung for much too long.

Irish Independent

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