Thursday 23 November 2017

‘Unsung hero’ Williams blocking out the boo-boys as he learns to love life in the shadow of Murray

Stand-in doesn’t resent negative comparisons – as long as he has Erasmus’ trust

Williams (pictured) booked Munster’s 21st century story. Photo: Sportsfile
Williams (pictured) booked Munster’s 21st century story. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Great deeds and genuine expression can make a man stand out from the crowd. Most of us, sadly, try to think and act the same way just because everyone else thinks and acts the same way.

Perhaps today, though, people may start to change the way they feel about Duncan Williams. Except he will never have to change the way he feels about himself.

Where others see uncertainty, he sees only surety. He trusts himself and it is clear that those who matter trust him also. In a team sport, that is all that matters. What happens inside the tent.

Asked this week what Williams might bring to a Munster side shorn the best scrum-half in the world, his coach, Rassie Erasmus, was forthright in his summation.

"Well, 31 years old," he began, matter-of-factly. "Experience. How many games has he played for us, just this season? How many try-saving tackles?

"For me, I have said it a few times, he is one of our unsung heroes. People differ.

"I see him at video sessions… on and off the field he is really exceptional. And his knowledge about the game is really top-notch. He will put up a good show and I really have confidence in him."

Stuff

And the player has enough of the stuff too.

Yet such conviction has not always been widely shared within the community he has served for nigh on 13 years.

Williams bookends Munster's 21st century story.

He was lucky to emerge at a province who would dominate Europe, becoming absorbed in the culture that drive them to the pinnacle of the game, but also unlucky to coincide with their gradual decline.

He is part of the furniture now - "I'm nearly the oldest fella around here," he smiles - but although the son of Cork has made 132 appearances for his province, his loyalty has not been unilaterally reciprocated.

Doubts have trailed like him like a persistent early morning mist.

Less than a month ago, as Munster prepared for their first quarter-final in three seasons against the greatest European side of them all, Toulouse, heightened concerns about Murray's fitness had persisted all week and were confirmed on the morning of the game.

Murray out! Williams in!

The ripples of concern that had permeated through the province all week now cascaded towards a veritable earthquake of anxiety. As he had done so many times before, Williams took it all in his stride.

"When Conor was announced, a large majority were sh***ing themselves that I had to play, not within the squad but supporters," says Williams baldly, albeit without any sense of rancour, just realism.

"I made no bones about that. Conor is one of the best players in the world so if he pulls out there will be a response. But the team is what matters.

"Two years ago Conor came off against Ospreys in the Guinness PRO12 semi, and I played well again in the final. People choose not to remember those things.

"I know there was a bit of a commotion a few weeks ago. But I've played rugby for a lot of years so it wasn't that nerve-wracking. We're the greatest at putting our own down sometimes."

Williams, like his sometime half-back partner Ian Keatley, has suffered the wrath before, notably against Edinburgh two seasons ago in Anthony Foley's first match in charge, when he could not help but hear the catcalls from the Thomond terraces.

"It is difficult, but you wonder at times what are people watching," said the late coach at the time.

Underwhelming, at best, reactions on social media hardened the sense that he was being targeted within a team who were struggling to regain their former glories.

Tomas O'Leary and Peter Stringer, multi-medalled maestros in his position, had departed from their homeland but Williams had remained. For some, it was a welcome outstayed.

The carping may have been minimal; yet the effects on some, if not Williams himself, were more profound.

"I'm not going to crib about that," he says, recalling that bruising experience.

"I'm in the unfortunate position where Conor is No 1 and anyone who comes in behind him is going to be compared to him. Any scrum-half in Europe is going to be compared to him. It is what it is.

"A few years ago it would have got me down, similar to Ian. Stuff being said about you. My girlfriend or family would read it and you'd be more concerned about them reading it rather than myself.

"But people are entitled to their opinion. If they want to say it, say it. I don't get too bogged down in it.

"We were implementing two new game-plans in four years, two of them at the start of the season when all the internationals were away.

"So there were lots of teething problems, then the internationals come back so it's not smooth sailing. The No 9 and No 10 take the flak and the credit, that's the way it is."

This is where he wanted to be. He remembers often sitting on the bench and, whether it was Tony McGahan or Rob Penney or Axel or Rassie Erasmus, he'd be fidgeting agitatedly for a chance.

"There were times when I didn't get on and I'd be thinking 'feck it, I didn't get on'. It would be a big call to take Conor off, though," he acknowledges. "It's a fine line."

Williams is self-deprecating enough to acknowledge the lack of appreciation, sometimes even from those who pay his wages; a one-year deal offered a while back is usually a subtle hint to players to start folding their tents.

"When your contract is up and there are talks… 'whooo, we might not renew your contract', you'd look around," he says. "But I always wanted to play for Munster, I'm happy to stay here.

"I'm not settled to be third or fourth choice. My goal is to be where I am and challenge. It's nice to be wanted. But I've had a few one-years alright!

"Realistically, Conor won't play every game here with Ireland and Lions duty. It's not like I'm a second-choice goalkeeper, never getting on. I've played a lot."

In three of the last four seasons, indeed, he has played more for Munster than anyone else - including Murray. He readily acknowledges the gulf in class between the pair; he just views it through a different prism.

And so he will plan for Saracens as he did for Toulouse. Nothing changes.

"I've been happy with the way I've been playing. I just kept doing the same things, Toulouse was another match. I didn't have to come in and fill Conor's boots.

"Realistically, he's one of the best in the world. And we're completely different players. He's 6ft 4in, 90-odd kilos. I'm 5ft 9in and 80kg soaking wet.

"I can't do the things he does so I just have to do the things I do and do them well. People get bogged down in stuff like that.

"Conor has attributes that make him good at certain things but so do I. I'm not as physically imposing as he is with the size.

"He is gifted with an unbelievable right foot and he can pass brilliantly off either hand. I just have to work off my own strengths.

"There's always work, no player is perfect. My kicking is always something I have had to work for. But you never try to go away from what is different about you.

"Luckily Rassie sees that in my game so that helps. You still have to work on your weaknesses but not to the detriment of your strengths."

Williams never lost his way even as the province he loves were fumbling in the dark, swapping styles with the all the gay abandon and ill-fitting unease of a gawky teenager.

Slipped

As each playing legend retired, Munster slipped further from those glorious European title-winning peaks of 2006 and '08; they weren't even the best in their own land any more.

In that '08 season, the team of O'Connell and O'Gara and O'Callaghan and Hayes squeezed past a Saracens side which was then only beginning their European journey.

They have passed each other on the slopes since then; nine years on in Dublin, Saracens are the true giants of Europe; Munster mere apprentices once more.

"We've embraced the game as a battle, you win some and you lose one," says Williams. "Move on to the next one but try to be involved in as many battles as you can be.

"We got down on ourselves last year, we got nervy. We've learned that worse things can happen than losing a match.

"Axel's death was tough and put everything in perspective. If you drop a ball now, you dust yourself off and go again. It's only a mistake.

"After working so hard just to get here, it would be foolish not to enjoy it. We can't change the way we play, we need to be near perfect, not leave anything out there.

"We just want to give a good account of ourselves. We won't leave our comfort zone. We will go with what we know."

Williams could be describing himself, not just Munster.

"They're probably ahead of where we are in terms of the long-term plan," he admits. "We're only building for seven months. They've been building this for seven years."

In some ways, so has Duncan Williams.

Irish Independent

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