Sunday, 4 December 2011

Wales' Wing Wizzard Signs Off - Recollections of a Magical Millennium Stadium Experience

Yesterday, thanks to a last minute spare ticket offer from one of my older brothers, I found myself in the unexpected but wonderful position of being able to see Shane Williams' emotional farewell in person.

It was my first visit to Cardiff to see a Welsh rubgy international since the last ever test match at the old Arms Park / National Stadium on March 15th 1997. Back on that day, Wales were soundly beaten by England in the old 5 Nations Championship but from the old stands, I was able to watch Johnathan Davies take his Welsh bow as he retired after winning 37 Welsh union caps having spent his career traversing the codes of rugby league and union. Though only 3-6 down at Half-Time, the Full-time score read 13-34 but despite this, the curtain call gave Davies his final moment in the sun as he scored his final points in international rugby with the last points of the game as he converted a late Rob Howley try.

Nearly 15 years later (having witnessed a 2003 Scotland Vs Wales Six Nations match in Murrayfield inbetween), I returned yesterday to the Millennium Stadium to watch a player who had not even started out back then in 1997, to take his final bow as well.

Wales' Record Try Scorer
Yes, the word 'legend' is overused and particularly so in the world of sport.

But for Shane Williams, no other word can do justice to the impact that he has had on Welsh and international rugby.

Having made his international debut back in 2000 at the relatively grand old age of 22, he would become a central member of both the 2005 and 2008 Welsh Grand Slam winning teams, scoring tries against Italy, Scotland and England in 2005 and against Italy, Scotland, Irleand and France in 2008. He was named the player of the 2008 tourament and later that same year, he became the first Welsh-man to be crowned the IRB International Player of the Year. He would go on to overtake Gareth Edwards as Wales' top try scorer in the history of the northern hempsphere's premier international championship and helped Wales to a record-equalling World Cup semi-final appearance back in the autumn.

But there was still one game to play...

A Magical & Emotional Atmosphere
Shane had decided to postpone his World Cup completing international retirement by one match so that he could finish a proud and distinguished career for his country in front of his home fans. It was therefore with much delight that I clutched at the 11th hour offer of a ticket to see that match yesterday.

We arrived in the stadium for the 2.30pm kick-off at 2pm by which time a multitude of Welsh Male Voice Choirs sitting in the old stand that backs onto the Arms Park were already in full swing. It sent the shivers down the spine to hear them sing a favourite of mine 'We'll Keep a Welcome' before they launched into renditions of Sospan Fach, Gwahoddiad, Cwn Rhondda, Calon Land, Men of Harlech and Delilah.

Although it was a dry Cardiff afternoon, the decision by the powers that be to close the roof for the match proved in my mind to be an inspired choice. The enclosed nature of the match gave a real sense of togetherness and added to what was a special and unique atmosphere.

After the Male Voice Choirs sang, we watched a video on the big screens of Shane's best moments in the red shirt of Wales. It cranked up the emotional levels even further before the man himself led out his country to the sights and sounds of those wonderful, blazing Millennium Stadium pyrotechnics. The surge of emotion running through the crowd was electric and when Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was sung and Shane could be visibly seen to be struggling under the weight of the occasion, it really was something to behold. There are few times when I have ever been as proud to sing my national anthem as I was at that moment yesterday afternoon.

The match itself didn't wholly live up to the occasion. The first half was a well fought, evenly balanced affair and at 6-3 ahead at Half-Time, I felt it gave a decent reflection of the match at that stage. But Wales never turned up for the first 20 minutes of the second half and the sin-binning Yellow Card didn't help matters though in my opinion was wholly deserved. Three Australian tries pretty much put the result beyond us and a great sense of anti-climax was sweeping through the stadium. But suddenly, a Rhys Priestland try gave a glimour of hope.

Wales' Wing Wizzard Signs Off
As the game entered its final 5 minutes, I was aware that Shane may be substituted so that the crowd could give him a standing ovation. This seemed to make sense to me and so it was that I kept looking out for him to see if Wales could somehow orchestrate a final hurrah for the small man in stature, but big in heart, before his retirement.

The final minutes of an illustrious Welsh
rugby union test playing career
It was with this in mind that my celebrations for Priestland's try were slightly muted as Shane was on his shoulder ready to score had he have made the pass. But Priestland touched over himself and the chance had gone. Thankfully, I was proved incorrect with the substitution judgement and the game went into overtime with Shane still on the pitch. From my low-level, ground-side vantage point, my eyes kept darting across the pitch as Wales put together one final attack to look for that No.11 figure. He was either on our left-wing or on the far side right-wing. The accompanied photo here illustrates this vantage point with the No.11 standing alone from the pack, waiting for his moment. He was here on our side when Priestland opted to go for the line himself but suddenly, minutes after I took this photograph, he was now on the far right-side as the ball was spread out wide in the dying seconds.

Suddenly there was a gap and the ball found itself in Shane's grasp. He had an overlap which he could've used but like Priestland before him, was not going to give the ball away with the line at his mercy. We went absolutely bonkers! The sight of our Shane scoring a final try for Wales in his final match, in the final minute, with his final touch of international rugby was a historic sporting moment to savour. We didn't care now that we'd lost the match 18-24 because our boy had signed off his international career in the same way that he had played over the previous 11 years - with passion, skill, a deftness of foot and a raw burst of speed that left those behind him in his wake.

Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!

It was a 58th and final try for Wales in 87 appearances. This, along with 2 test tries for the Lions brought him to a final round figure of 60 international test tries - leaving him in 3rd place in the all-time list of international test try scorers behind Daisuke Ohata's 69 in 58 appearances for Japan but most significantly, just behind Australia's David Campese who crossed over 64 times in 101 appearances.

His interview straight after the final whistle as he held onto his two children, both with the name 'Dadi' on the back of their No.11 rugby shirts and his failed attempts to keep his emotions in check pulled at the heart-strings even further. It was a moment he had deserved after a career's service for his country.

A remarkable career, a remarkable player who proved that in rugby terms, small can be beautiful and who put a decade long smile onto the face of a nation.

So it was yesterday, that a nation cried and wept with joy as a name that will do down in Welsh rugby folklore alongside the likes of Bary John, Gareth EdwardsMervyn Davies, J.J. Williams, J.P.R Williams and Neil Jenkins to name but a few, made us smile one last time. I'm proud to say that 'I was there' when it happened.

Thank you Shane. Diolch am yr atgofion felys.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely splendid! Could have not said it better myself :)