Wednesday 22 February 2017 2:23 pm

Shane Williams interview: Legendary Wales wing on how long-distance running filled the gap left by his rugby retirement

After a 17-year career spent flying past and sometimes crashing into men nearly twice his size, Welsh rugby legend Shane Williams could have been forgiven for taking a breather after finally calling it a day.

It notoriously took the diminutive Welsh winger a number of attempts to quit the game before he hung up his boots for good two years ago following a player-coaching stint in Japan, yet even after a career in which he became the third-highest international try scorer of all time, he's not ready to sit still.

“I tried taking a rest,” Williams told City A.M. “I lasted about four days.

“I retired on the Saturday in Tokyo. I was home on the Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday I was twiddling my thumbs and by Thursday my wife said: ‘Just get out the house and do something!’”

Williams started long-distance running that weekend and within two months he was crossing the London Marathon off his bucket list and — aside from when Six Nations punditry duty calls — he hasn’t stopped since.

The livewire winger, whose acceleration was so devastating in the smallest pockets of space, has now expanded his scope to other endurance events.

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Not content with conquering Ironman and Olympic-distance triathlons in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons, the 39-year-old is now moving up a level to a quadrathlon.

This October Williams will take part in the IGO Adventures NW05° Moroccan Challenge — a series of four marathons in four days across four disciplines of running, mountain biking, desert biking and kayaking.

“I’m doing this stuff because I get restless very quickly,” said Williams. “If I wasn’t I’d have pulled all my hair out by now and I’d be about 21 stone.

“I was a professional rugby player for a long time and for the majority of that time I was told what to eat, what I was drinking, what I was doing and when I was doing it. And before you know it, you wake up on a Monday morning and have to look after yourself. It is difficult. A lot of players struggle.

“I’m lucky that I’ve got lots of friends that do Ironmen and triathlons so I can just train with them. We had something like 40,000 spectators there for the Ironman in Wales last year.”

Williams admits that the gruelling races can be “bloody horrendous”, but he has never been one to be daunted by a sizable challenge.

Before becoming Wales’ record try-scorer with 60 scores in 87 appearances, the 5ft 7ins Amman Valley native had to banish doubts from coaches and fans over his height — starting with the supporters who mistook him for a ball boy when he first appeared for Neath.

Virgin Money London Marathon
Williams poses with his medal after completing the London Marathon (Source: Getty)

Few in Neath would fail to recognise him now. Williams was one of the key figures in Wales’s 2005 and 2008 grand slam-winning teams — finishing the latter as the tournament’s top try scorer with six scores — and represented his country at three World Cups and on three Lions tours.

After a career of such highs, it’s no wonder that retirement left Williams with an adrenaline itch needing to be scratched.

“I think it probably is something that I’ve missed from the rugby,” he says of his running habit.

“Running out in front of a full crowd at the Millennium Stadium with people chanting and supporting you – it’s a little bit of compensation for that really. I’m never going to get it back but at least I can get something on a smaller scale.”

For the next month though, Williams will be focusing on the Six Nations as a pundit for the BBC.

With the spectre of the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand this summer looming over the tournament, Williams has a unique insight to offer into what head coach Warren Gatland will be looking for.

Williams played under Gatland in the final four years of his international career and was so trusted by the Kiwi he was called into his 2013 Lions squad as a last-minute replacement despite not having played an international game for two years.

“He’ll got with players who are good tourists,” Williams says of his former drill sergeant. "Players who don’t get overawed by the whole experience.”

And Williams knows from experience how that pressure to impress before Gatland picks his squad in April will have a bearing on performances in the final weeks of the Six Nations.

“If any player says the Lions tour isn’t already in the back of their mind, they’re lying,” he says.

“You want to be playing well, you want to get on that tour. It’s the pinnacle of your career.

“It’s the boys who are not quite as mentally strong who it affects. It does happen. But an Alun Wyn Jones or a Dan Cole will just keep on doing what they do. The Johnny Sextons and players like that are mentally tough and will just concentrate on what they’re doing and not let it affect their game.”

Wales v Australia - IRB RWC 2011 Bronze Final
Williams was often dwarfed by his opponents on the field (Source: Getty)

Williams could count himself in the same bracket were he still playing, although he would struggle to find too many opponents and teammates in the same physical mould these days.

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Rugby players have ballooned in strength and size in recent years with Wales’ beefed-up back line featuring Jamie Roberts and George North — as adept at blasting through players as going around them — particularly indicative of the trend.

Williams says “there are less and less” of the type of smaller speedsters who used to zip past Six Nations defences such as himself, France’s Christophe Dominici or England’s Jason Robinson.

“But I do think there’s a transition in rugby union at the moment,” he adds. “We’ve seen at this year’s Six Nations that teams are looking to play with width, looking to play with tempo, trying to run teams off the park.

“In the past it’s been like World War Three in recent years with teams trying to run over the top of each other and then the team that gives away the least penalties wins the match.

“In the last four or five years it’s been all about producing athletes. You’ve got to be at least 5ft 8ins and 17 stone and able to run the 100m in 11 seconds. But the game changes.

“Julian Savea is a good example of New Zealand thinking ‘right, we don’t need him to be 18 stone anymore because we want to play with width so we’ll ask him to lose a bit of weight so he’ll be a bit quicker’.

“Perhaps in four or five years time all wingers won’t be big at all but we’ll have nippy quick-steppers who can get around the park. Hopefully we’ll see a few more [Christophe] Dominicis and Jason Robinsons.”

Wales and Lions fans wouldn’t mind another Shane Williams either.

IGO Adventures (020 3793 9409, NW05° – The Moroccan Challenge costs from £3,495 per person excluding personal travel insurance and flights.