Real rugby news seems to be swallow-diving out of obscurity and into our living rooms. And maybe it’s about time. But given that much of the news has been either unflattering to the game or downright bad, we the rugby-sympathetic don’t know whether to continue hiding behind our hands or devour it for signs of better things.
In the UK, Shane Williams, the all-smiling shim-meister has provided a focus for goodwill and good humour – as he always has – during the last scuttle towards the tryline of his international career. It barely needs me to add my ill-informed tribute to those already being spontaneously lobbed like roses into the horse-drawn cart of his Special Day but frankly, I’d like to. And it may or may not be appropriate to begin with a non-rugby matter but… tough… here goes.
A close family friend suffered Sudden Death Syndrome i.e. he unaccountably collapsed whilst playing rugby and stopped breathing entirely. I believe he was 16 at the time. The coach and others splendidly came to his rescue during and after the deathlike state but inevitably he was hospitalized for some weeks. I am reliably informed that the thing that gave him and his family most cheer at a time of unimaginable stress – raw fear even – was a bedside visit from Shane Williams.
I am aware that sportsmen and women do these kind of things but it will make utter sense to everyone who has ever either seen Shane play or heard him talk that the one man most likely to raise the spirits of an ailing lad would be Shane Williams. He is a compendium of bustling, smile-inducing energies. He defies all that is depressing or cynical. His sporting gifts are predicated on a ludicrous and liberated enjoyment of his instincts; they in turn are irretrievably generous in the sense that he has always chosen to fly, to entertain, to dance through the dull matrix of negativity or doubt. This is why he is loved as well as admired. He is Shane.
In Wales – and his particular brand of invincible pride, ‘step’ and community-driven dash could only be welsh – Williams looms disproportionately large in the hearts of everyone. Clearly he might be Housewife’s Choice anywhere (forgive the political naivity of the phrase) for his impish cuddleability. But the meaning of Shaneness has implications it seems in the lung-busting, whole-nation nature of celebration gathered around him now/when he dives over/always.
People know here that he is allegedly far too small to compete with these other, bone-crunching giants. They are specimens of Transformer, surely, escaped from some 3D action epic, trampling through the conscience of the sporting world. Witness the 17/18 stone wingers – the Banahans, the Lomus, the Nearly Everybodys clumping across the landscape in a shirt bearing 11-15 in recent years.
And yet the relatively diminutive welsh left-winger (what a teasingly evocative phrase that one is!) has been astonishingly productive in terms of tries scored. 59 in 87 games represents a sensational haul in an era when defences have become massively more watertight.
Williams is generally somewhere between 2 and 4 stones lighter than his opposite number. This we have to respect. It appeals also to widespread notions of doggedness under challenge or oppression, notions understandably generally held to be viscerally central to welsh self-image. This is not to say that Shane is enjoyed mostly as some politically charged symbol of defiance; it’s simpler, lovelier than that.
He is at once a spectacular and a modest man, a talent wonderfully expressed. He is that sparkling contradiction – the Charming Rebellion. Welsh or otherwise, we just love to see the bugger run.