Saturday 24 June 2017

'Ireland will be a real pain in the backside' - Welsh legend's ringing endorsement for Joe Schmidt's men

Welsh legend concerned Scotland may have provided Ireland with perfect template

Williams has high praise for Ireland's CJ Stander
Williams has high praise for Ireland's CJ Stander
Former Wales rugby star Shane Williams pictured ahead of the airing of AIB’s 'The Tougest Trade' Photo: PA
David Kelly

David Kelly

The great London entrepreneur Irvine Sellar died this week, a man who didn't coin a famous phrase, but who definitely pocketed it for key gain.

"Take an English breakfast. The hen is involved but the pig is committed."

Shane Williams has always been committed.

Participation in 'The Toughest Trade' for AIB with Michael Murphy's Glenswilly was daunting but merely something to which he obligingly committed.

Too small to make it in pro rugby, so he was told once and the ad men keep saying repeatedly, stepping out with an unfamiliar white ball upon a pitch blanketed in snow was, comparatively, just another challenge, albeit one whose uniqueness he highly lauds.

He played up front, trying to make his speed over-ride any skill deficiencies; the hits were just as hard, even in training.

"Bang," he recalls one training session. "He puts his shoulder in my chin and I was gone. I was like, 'Jesus Christ'. I looked at the coach as if to say, 'Is that illegal?'

"And he was like, 'No, that's fair'. I thought, 'Ooh, ya bastard.' I was seeing stars."

His beloved Wales - for whom he played for more than a decade, their record try-scorer (58 in 87 Tests, fourth on the all-time list), as well as going on three Lions tours - are seeing stars themselves at the moment.

Defeat to Ireland on Friday week would condemn them to a third in this campaign, a second in succession on their cherished Cardiff turf, as well as consign them to a third seeding for the forthcoming World Cup draw.

He doesn't know what response to expect because he was expecting something quite different after their encouraging opening to the campaign, before the late defeat to England accelerated their decline.

"If you had spoken to me after the England game I would have had a smile on my face," says Williams.

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England and Wales was a tough encounter and players need more than a week to recover from such games
 

"I was quite optimistic and happy with the way Wales were going. Okay, the score didn't help in the end, they lost, but they seemed to have turned the corner from that second half against Italy and then brought that momentum into the England game.

"They could easily have won that game. Physically, it was the best defensive performance in two years. Ball in hand, they were playing with width and depth and intent, getting the likes of Liam Williams involved in the game out on the edge, and Jonathan Davies from deep.

"And I was optimistic after the first-half at the weekend against Scotland. But I have no idea what happened in the second half. Scotland frustrated Wales, they attacked them at the breakdown.

"Wales sent in one-in runners, looked quite lethargic at times and had no direction with ball in hand. When they did break the gain-line, they lost the ball in contact and got very frustrated. My worry is that is how Ireland play.

"They will frustrate, they keep the ball very well and will keep it away from Wales. The likes of CJ Stander and Seán O'Brien or whoever, Devin Toner did really well there last weekend, will be a real pain in the backside and make it difficult for Wales in the breakdown.

"So it's a massive game for Wales. There is a lot at stake, it is a huge game for them and they are under a lot of pressure."

Two years ago, Wales defended with their lives - an epic 45 phase onslaught which was repelled is a mini-phenomenon virally - and made a then record 250 tackles, with lock Luke Charteris making 30 of them.

Just as in Welllington at the World Cup in 2011, Wales specifically targeted Ireland's back-row and, even if Peter O'Mahony is introduced to thwart the Welsh lineout jumpers, that will be their aim in nine days' time too.

However, the Welsh also suffer, more critically, from balance issues.

"Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric are both openside flankers. That was gambled with a couple of seasons back and it worked. It's a difficult one.

"It works sometimes but then there are times when they are trying to do the same job.

"Look at Ireland, who have two sixes rather than an out-and-out seven and it is effective at the moment, because it is all about the breakdown and ball-carrying, getting over that gain-line.

"CJ Stander's stats are through the roof and he and Seán O'Brien are taking the benefit of that while Jamie Heaslip is more like a Tipuric, he has great feet, great ball-handler and more of a footballing back-rower.

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Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip

"Wales have two great players there and we have a lot of sevens, maybe not strength in depth at six.

"Ross Moriarty was great versus England so maybe play him six and drop Toby Faletau in but do you drop Sam Warburton?

"Or Tipuric who is the form player for three seasons? It's a conundrum and a massive headache."

Williams turned 40 this week, still does the odd triathlon and, aside from his stint with Glenswilly, he may also have a cup final date in the Principality Stadium with his village soccer club in West Wales, Ammanford Athletic, later this year.

He plays on the left there too, as he did in the oval ball game; to offset his initial struggles with its unique skills, his GAA coaches also stuck him closer to the scoring posts.

"I had less thinking to do. As in soccer, the strikers are the less clever ones, you just tell them to score goals and not to worry about it.

"For me, the lads were just saying, 'Off the mark, just blast it, put your head down for 20, 30 metres, hopefully you're going to gas this guy and then you can hopefully get the ball.'

"I said, 'I can do that, I can try and do that anyway.' Just try and find some space. The training I found harder because I was learning new skills.

"But in the game, even though my speed has diminished and my conditioning, in a rugby sense, has gone, I managed to lose the defender a few times and get involved with the game.

"And then I started to enjoy it. I suddenly realised, 'Okay, I'll do that each time, they want me to get the ball.'"

After that, his ageless commitment took care of everything else.

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