Williams' longevity is the sweetest reply to his critics
When Exeter Chiefs centre Henry Slade took off down the wing in the 60th minute last Saturday, Munster scrum-half Duncan Williams did what he had to do. Williams tracked back and did a flying try-saving tackle on Phil Dollman before getting up and springing onto his opposite number, Stuart Townsend. Penalty to Munster. Four minutes later, CJ Stander scored a try. No wonder Johann van Graan singled Williams out for praise in the dressing-room after. No wonder Alby Mathewson tweeted: "Duncan Williams man of the match surely?!"
We only need to look back on this season to appreciate how much of a challenge it must be for a player fighting for his position in the Munster scrum-half pecking order. In August, with Conor Murray sidelined, Munster announced the signing of Mathewson on a four-month deal. Neil Cronin started the first Pro14 game with James Hart on the bench. Cronin got injured in the next game in Glasgow and Williams replaced him after 35 minutes.
Williams started against Ospreys and was replaced by Hart after 66 minutes. With both Cronin and Hart injured, Williams played the entire game against the Cardiff Blues with Jack Stafford on the bench. All the while, Mathewson was waiting for his work permit to come through.
As soon as that got sorted, Mathewson started against Ulster and Leinster and was proving to be a great catch before he sustained a knee injury at the Aviva Stadium and was replaced by Williams after 74 minutes.
Last Saturday was Williams' first European start since the Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens last year. The backdrop to Williams starting were groans and doubts in the online echo chamber. It's not like Williams hasn't heard these in the past. "You know what people say about perception," Williams was quoted as saying in an interview in September 2017. "People might have thought last year was my best season but I think I played just as well in other seasons but because the perception out there was that I was useless, people didn't think so."
Watching from New York, ex-Munster scrum-half Cathal Sheridan was delighted for his former team-mate after his performance against the Chiefs.
"I think there's been an absolute case of group-think when it comes to Duncan. It's like one person says something and it's like, 'Yeah I agree with you, he's useless'. Next thing, he's brilliant and everybody jumps on that," Sheridan said this week.
"The reality is that Dunc has been working his ass off. He's gone through an awful lot of s**t. When I was first coming through the senior ranks, Duncan had an awful lot of injuries very early on in his career. I think people forget that. He had groin problems and things like that and he came back from those. He's incredibly resilient to come in, be dropped, have a load of s**t thrown at him in the media and then to keep on coming back, to keep performing."
Before Declan Kidney took over as Ireland head coach, Williams moved from the academy to the Munster senior squad ahead of the 2008/'09 season and made his senior debut against Connacht at Thomond Park in December 2009. Williams has worked under Tony McGahan, Rob Penney, the late Anthony Foley, Rassie Erasmus and, now, Van Graan. With some coming to the end of their playing careers, Williams has outlasted a host of rival scrum-halves at the province.
These include players on short-term contracts or club players who featured competitively; scrum-halves who were on the books at the Munster academy and senior squad at the same time as Williams include Peter Stringer, Tomás O'Leary, Mike Prendergast, Chris Delooze, Gerry Hurley, Toby Morland, Te Aihe Toma, Sheridan, Abrie Griesel, John Poland and Angus Lloyd.
"You just have to look at how many scrum-halves have come in and left throughout (Williams time at Munster), myself included. He's brilliantly bitter that way, he's not going to let you away with anything and that's why I loved competing with him," Sheridan laughs.
"That's why I liked training with him because I knew that if I got the starting position, he was going to be like a dog at training, he wasn't going to be happy about it. Like that's brilliant, you don't want a fella that's going to be smiley and cheery. He was like a dog in a good way, he wouldn't go around and be toxic in training he would just be like: 'Ok, I'm going to train the house down now'."
With Munster a traditional hothouse for starting scrum-halves for Ireland like Stringer, O'Leary, Murray, it's no wonder other 9s at the province might suffer in comparison, especially when it comes to the current best scrum-half in the world.
"Maybe we've been a little bit spoiled. When you look at the level that Conor is operating at and some of the things he does, that's just now seen as normal, and then everybody just magnifies everything that isn't that," Sheridan adds.
"I think there was a popular opinion for a while that anything that wasn't Conor Murray was a mistake, rather than look for, 'Right, where are we getting the real benefit out of this?'"
There was no doubt about Williams' benefit to Munster last Saturday. Because when Munster have needed him the most - like against Exeter, like against Toulouse in last year's European quarter-final when Murray was ruled out - Williams has defied perceptions about him.
Sport shows us that measuring success doesn't need to be a narrow view - it can also be how a player fights for his place in the food chain, how he makes other players better by being a dog at training, how he tracks back and makes a crucial double-tackle in an away European game.
"For a guy that's in the doldrums and gets abused all around the country, it's nice that he has his day in the sun," Ronan O'Gara gushed about Williams last weekend. "It wasn't a victory but I think it was a personal victory."
Williams, 32, will play for the 160th time for Munster today. But professional rugby is an unforgiving business. Five days after that display against Exeter came the news that Nick McCarthy will join Munster from Leinster next season with Cronin also landing a new and deserved contract.
No word on Williams, whose current deal finishes at the end of this season. What does his future look like? Who knows? It's another challenge to deal with. It's rarely been any other way for Williams.