Retirement, quite understandably, is a delicate issue that unnerves most of the world’s elite sportsmen. So often, an outstanding playing career is frustratingly undermined by its twilight years as iconic performers toil on amid sluggish reflexes and an ailing appetite. George Best meandering around the San Jose Earthquakes midfield in his mid-thirties or Ricky Ponting’s current struggles in Test cricket are but two examples of this – titanic talents fighting to earn a glittering reputation, only to see part of it evaporate.
Even the whispers coming out of the South African media last week regarding a potential international return for 110-cap veteran Victor Matfield seemed ill-advised. However domineering Matfield has been over the years, his bones are creaking. There are exceptions to every rule – Simon Shaw’s form since his 30th birthday has defied physiology – but knowing when to step out of the limelight is an underrated attribute.
For that very reason, Shane Williams’ conduct over the course of this season has been superb. Since hinting before last autumn’s Rugby World Cup that he may never wear the red of Wales after the tournament (one more afternoon back home at the Millennium Stadium proved irresistible), the diminutive winger has handled himself with understated class off the field, adamant of his desire “not to go on forever.”
Of course, Williams’ dazzling feet have sent sporadic reminders of how much he will be missed. A 58th Test try with the final touch of his last match for Wales against Australia back in December was a moment of raw, unadulterated emotion. The tearful interview afterwards then bared his soul to an adoring nation. There was yet another fairytale script to perform on Friday evening during what was meant to be his last outing at the Liberty Stadium, home of the Ospreys. At the death of a decidedly unremarkable match – which, I fear, may become a recurring theme in Welsh provincial rugby next year – Williams scythed through a tired Newport Dragons defence to clinch a crucial bonus point.
Ironically, his actions are now likely to prolong his stay in the sport, with the Ospreys now set to host the RaboDirect Pro 12 play-off semi-final against either Munster or Glasgow. Given that he declared “my blood is black” in tribute to the Neath-Swansea community at the final whistle, you suspect that Williams knew exactly what he was up to.
In fact, if BBC Wales’ fantastically intimate and insightful documentary ‘Shane’ is anything to go by, Williams has always retained an admirable sense of self-esteem. For a man weighing just 80 kilograms, standing a mere 5ft 7 inches tall, surviving in the violent world of professional rugby, let alone excelling, has required an immeasurable degree of inner steel. Flitting intriguingly through a whistle-stop tour of the 35 year-old’s life, ‘Shane’ never strays too far from its subject’s beloved Amman Valley. Even when the topic of a lucrative move to a club in France is mooted briefly, it is emphasised that an attachment to home comforts refused to let Williams sell himself to the modern-day mercenary brigade.
The program’s most telling period though, explores the beginning of Wales’ Steve Hansen era. Having endured a tortuous 22-month wait for a cap because of his size, Williams scraped into the 2003 World Cup squad as a third-choice scrum-half and was forced to run as opposition while those selected for the pool-stage games were put through their paces. Recalling a blazing, expletive-ridden row with Hansen out in Australia, he looks at the camera and gives a wry smile.
“He wasn’t going to pick me anyway, so I didn’t give a sh*t,” comes a typically cheeky observation. In the event, Hansen did pick Williams in the final group match against New Zealand. The wildcard paid off wonderfully and the rest, as they say, is history.
As Williams puts the very final touches to his illustrious playing record over the next few weeks, he must abide by his initial instincts and the plan to make this campaign his last. His decision – made easier by the formidable conveyor belt of back-three talent in the Valleys that is responsible for the new-look trio of George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert – is the right one. Congratulations, Shane, and thank you for sticking to your guns.