The Wales legend assesses the 2022 Six Nations, weighs in on the future of the competition, and picks out his favourite wingers.
In an exclusive Q&A with sports betting firm Betway, Wales legend Shane Williams discusses Italy’s future in the Six Nations and reveals the wingers he loves to watch.
What do you make of the 2022 Six Nations so far?
It’s been a typical Six Nations. It’s fast and furious, and is a tournament that in the blink of an eye is over.
We’ve seen some great games already, I thoroughly enjoyed the Ireland v France game over the weekend, didn’t particularly enjoy the Ireland v Wales game, but that’s what the Six Nations is all about.
Every game is different, individuals are stepping up and playing well and it’s been fast and furious like it always is.
All of a sudden, there’s a number of teams that are in contention, and obviously France on top will be the favourites.
France are the only team with a shot at the Grand Slam but there’s still five teams realistically in the title race. Who do you like the look of?
Again, that’s the beauty of the Six Nations. Obviously, France have two wins from two – Ireland was always going to be a tasty, tasty test for them, but they came through that one in the end.
So, certainly France would be the favourites, but I felt England were unlucky up at Murrayfield and they put Italy to the sword yesterday, but didn’t really fire on all cylinders, so I think there’s a lot more to come from England.
I’ve been very impressed with Ireland, they some lovely rugby, although not quite the same without Sexton against France. I think it’s Ireland, England, and France that have the opportunity to go on now and win this.
Wales travelling to Twickenham is going to be really tough, and that’s a game England will expect to win.
It’s still up in the air and that’s the beauty of the Six Nations – you can’t write anyone off and you won’t put your money where your mouth is really at the moment, because there’s a number of teams that could do it.
On an individual level, are there any players that have caught your eye?
I’ve enjoyed watching a number of players. Villiere has been exceptional on the wing for France. I always keep my eye on the wingers. I didn’t know much about him before the tournament, but he’s been busy. He scored a hat-trick in his first game and is very, very dangerous.
Darcy Graham, for Scotland, was a thorn in Wales’s side and again has been very busy.
Marcus Smith has been superb, he’s got two tries in two games and was deservedly man of the match against Italy. He’s taking his Harlequins confidence on to the England stage now.
There’s also Dupont doing what Dupont does – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have a bad game.
What do you think about Italy’s future in the Six Nations?
I’m a firm believer in Italy, they need to be in the Six Nations. I was there when they were introduced in 2000, and my second cap was against Italy.
They’re always a side that don’t have the luxury of the amount of players that the other nations get. What they have had in the past are world-class players, the Bergamascos, Sergio Parisse, that have helped them win the odd game.
But I believe they are a side that’s building, and they’re a side that never give up. They have the right attitude, and I enjoy watching them, I really do. I would really feel for them if they weren’t to be involved in the Six Nations anymore.
My question is, is there a team in Europe that are better than them? I don’t think so. For that reason, I believe they need to stay. But it is difficult.
I do think they are starting to try and get an identity, they’re bringing young players through, the likes of Benetton are playing better in the URC. The coaching staff, they’ve invested in good coaches that are going to build this team.
But they are they are still up against very, very good international teams which is always going to be very difficult for them anyway.
I’m quite romantic, in that sense. I do think that Italy will get better, and are in that period now where they need time to grow and develop as a team.
What would you think about opening up the tournament to teams from outside of Europe?
Again, I’m a traditionalist. I’ve always seen the Six Nations as the Home Nations, France, and obviously Italy being introduced.
For me, personally, I see the World Cup as a different tournament in which you will get the opportunity to play teams like Japan and South Africa. I think if you open it up and you start bringing these nations in, then it’s going to look very much like a World Cup again.
So, I wouldn’t like that to happen. I quite like the way it is. I like to feel what the Six Nations is all about, away games, travelling to Rome and Paris. I just don’t see how the dynamics of it would work if you were bringing in nations from around the world.
So, like I say, I’m very much a traditionalist, I hope it doesn’t happen. But it’s not in my control. So we’ll have to wait and see.
But I believe Italy will become a better side. Are they going to be a side that’s ever going to compete for the Six Nations? I don’t think they will be for some time. But you look at the games they play as well, they’re always fully committed and make it a good competition. So, they’d be very hard done by, I think.
What are the attributes you need to become a world-class winger?
It’s not something that comes very easily. To be world-class winger, obviously you’ve got to have the pace and the ability to beat defenders, and that doesn’t come naturally, that is something you do have to work on.
You don’t have to be the fastest player in the world to be a good winger. You just need to work on the short, sharp stuff, and illusion to try to beat defenders. You’ve got to have that finishing instinct.
You have to realise that you’re the player within that group of players around you that is there to get those five pointers. You’ve got to know the way to the try line, you’ve got to be very gutsy and resilient in the way you play and train. And, you know, you’ve got to have a massive, massive work rate.
Wingers back in the 60s and 70s just stayed on the wing, waiting for it to come and score the tries, those days have gone. It’s about getting around the field, it’s about getting involved in the game as much as possible, and playing a game that opponents find hard to read.
If you’re someone that has a huge work rate, comes off shoulders, comes out on the wing, plays at nine, plays at 10, plays at centre, those are the players that will get the most games because they’re very difficult to defend, and they’re very difficult to keep an eye on.
When I played, I was a very uncharacteristic winger because the last place that I wanted to be was out on the touch line, waiting for the ball to come. So, it’s about developing your game and working hard as well.
It was a game that didn’t come naturally to me, I was a scrum-half initially. So, I had to realise that for me to score tries and be successful, I had to work hard and cover as much grass as I possibly could on the pitch.
How has the position of winger changed since you started playing?
A winger now doesn’t just play on the wing. I think that’s the main thing.
When I started playing on the wing, I kept on popping in, trying to play scrum-half, and I was told that was wrong, to just get out wide and score tries for us. It felt really quite boring, to be honest with you. I didn’t get much involvement and didn’t like it.
But a good winger now, most of the time you don’t see him on the wing, you see him popping up on the opposite side of the field, or popping up by a scrum, or a breakdown, or a ruck. Someone who’s offering their services 24/7, those are the best players because their work rate is higher, they get their hands on the ball far more often, and the law of averages says if you’re touching the ball more you’re going to be creating more and have more opportunities to score.
The game has completely changed as well in the sense that you used to look for your big, fast wingers that can run fast in a straight line, and strong finishers in the corner, but you don’t even need that anymore.
What you need is someone that is willing to work hard, carry the ball well, whether it’s in the centre or at a breakdown, or finishing on the wing which happens a lot more in this day and age because they’re scoring more tries.
It’s all about work rate and the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Darcy Graham, Matsushima, they’re not the biggest in the world but they look like they’re doing twice as much work as anyone else in the back line because they’re so hungry to get involved in the game. That’s the sign of a good winger.
Are there any current wingers you love to watch in particular?
Cheslin Kolbe is my favourite. Obviously, he’s had a couple of injuries but is now back playing for Toulon, but I just admire his guts. He’s someone that is so aggressive in defence, even though he’s about 5ft6in, 5ft7in.
His ability to play fullback, on the wing, or even outside half is incredible, and when you look at what he’s achieved in the last three or four years with World Cup win, European Cup competitions, Lions series success, there’s not many players around at the moment that have his CV over the last few years. He’s an incredible talent.
I saw Fukuoka and Matsushima during the World Cup, I love watching Darcy Graham coming to the fore now, Mack Hansen for Ireland as well, I’m enjoying watching him, and Villiere, like I said earlier.
These players that are a similar stature to what I was, and are starting to really develop their game and get the rewards.
Who is the best winger in the world right now?
There’s a number of good wingers but my favourite by a long stretch is Cheslin Kolbe, to the point where I was disappointed when he was injured because I enjoy flicking through the channels trying to catch him playing in France or wherever he’s playing.
He’s back playing for Toulon now, he’s fit, and he’s going strong so yeah, Cheslin Kolbe, he’s a joy to watch.
Build your perfect winger
Out-and-out speed, one of the quickest players I played against was [Takudzwa] Ngwenya for the US.
He’d gone through the draft in NFL and unfortunately didn’t make it, but in a straight line there was nothing in world rugby that could touch this man.
I remember him burning Bryan Habana off in the World Cup. His straight-line speed was unbelievable. I had the misfortune of played against him several times and I realised there wasn’t anyone catching this man. Absolute pace through-and-through.
I think someone like Louis Rees-Zammit would be close in out-and-out pace, that boy can shift as well, but having not played against him I’ll go for Ngwenya.
It’s got to be Mr. Jonah Lomu, doesn’t it? I can’t do many interviews without mentioning the man that I watched over the years.
I can never say that I emulated my game on him, because he was the complete opposite of me, but I just couldn’t get over the size of the man but not only that, his athleticism. He wasn’t hard to tackle because he was so big, but because he was so powerful, so strong, his centre of gravity was really low. He just had it all, really.
There’s no one else you can pick, is there?
One of my heroes growing up was Gerald Davies. Absolute legend.
He was similar to myself in stature, he was 5ft6in, very quick off the mark, over five, 10, 15 metres, no one could touch him. He had the ability to sidestep off both feet, which people think is an easy thing to do – it’s not. People are always much stronger on one side than the other, but Gerald had this ability to step off his right foot and his left foot.
He’s my hero as well, so he has to have a mention.
Just in remembering how many tries he scored, it has to be Bryan Habana.
We used to have some great battles over the years against each other. He always just had this uncanny knack of scoring tries, whether it was an intercept, whether it was going under the arms of defenders, he just had this ability to score tries.
He was so annoying to play against, he wouldn’t do anything for 79 minutes and then he’d score a match winner in the final seconds. That’s what Bryan always had, he had the confidence and knowledge to always find his way to the line.
When you score 60-odd tries for your country, you know what you’re doing, don’t you?