Monday 29 July 2019 5:53 pm

Shane Williams interview: 'This is the strongest Wales squad I've ever seen. They need this World Cup.'

Shane Williams has seen plenty of great Wales teams.

In recent history he has been a crucial part of most of them, winning two Grand Slams and a world player of the year award in a glittering career in a red shirt. 

But none of those sides, according to the former winger, are as good as the crop preparing to take on the world this autumn.

Read more: How Eddie Jones is counting down to the Rugby World Cup

Wales’s all-time leading try-scorer, 42, rates Warren Gatland’s current Grand Slam champions as “the strongest Wales squad I’ve ever seen,” owing largely to the variety of options at his former coach’s disposal.

“I’ve played in some world-class teams,” Williams tells City A.M. “But we didn’t have the depth to use one team one week and a completely different one the next.

“Warren Gatland doesn’t even know who he’s going to choose yet. He probably didn’t have that comfort up until two years ago.”

Stars aligning for Wales

Less than two months out from the World Cup, a stellar year for Welsh rugby has ensured that expectations are at fever pitch.

In winning the Grand Slam and extending a national record winning streak that now stands at 14 they have forced their way into the conversation about potential world champions.

Shane Williams cooked octopus balls as part of an event to promote World Cup host cities Osaka and Kobe

Indeed, the stars do appear to be aligning for Wales. They are relatively injury-free and in good form.

What’s more, if all three were to win their groups, Wales would have a path to the World Cup final that would avoid both England and New Zealand, the two pre-tournament favourites. 

Only one Welsh side have ever survived as far as a World Cup semi-final – that being in Williams’s final World Cup, in 2011.

If Wales are to match or exceed that, Williams, who retired in 2014, insists they must use their reputation as a weapon.

“What they have now, with the likes of Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones, is confidence,” he adds.

“You need that in a World Cup, as well as a slight bit of arrogance. If you don’t believe you can win it, it’s not going to happen.”

Now or never

Gatland and Wyn Jones, the coach and captain who have been the two pillars of Welsh rugby over the past decade, will not be around for another shot at World Cup glory if this does not go to plan.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 21:  Shane Williams of Wales goes over to score a try during the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup bronze final match between Wales and Australia at Eden Park on October 21, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Williams, Wales’s all-time leading try-scorer, helped them reach the semi-finals at the 2011 World Cup. Credit: Getty

Gatland, who Williams describes as “the best coach in the world,” is due to join Chiefs in his native New Zealand after the tournament, whereas Wyn Jones will celebrate his 34th birthday days before Wales’s opener against Georgia.

“If they don’t win this World Cup, then who knows?” Williams says.

“In four years, who knows who the coach is going to be and who knows what players we’re going to have? They need this one.”

Rugby in Japan

The 2019 edition of the Rugby World Cup will be held in Japan for the first time, a venue Williams knows well, having spent the final three years of his career at the Mitsubishi Sagamihara DynaBoars.

Williams spent three seasons in Japan at the end of his playing career

Williams had played what many considered to be the final game of his career when news of his move to Japan broke in 2012.

It was a move that he surprised himself in taking. “I knew nothing about Japan really, so it was a little intimidating to go out there,” he says. 

What Williams found in Japan was a nation pushing to grow rugby.

When he arrived, it was not considered to be in the top five national sports; now, the country contains the fourth-highest number of registered rugby players worldwide. 

Williams, speaking at an event to champion Osaka and Kobe as host cities for the World Cup, says that each time he returns to Japan the attention towards the sport has multiplied.

Williams says Japan’s appetite for rugby has rocketed in the last few years

This popularity growth has been accelerated by two landmark events: Japan’s victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, one of the biggest shocks in the sport; and of course the country hosting rugby’s biggest tournament.

“I went back for the trophy tour and the crowds that gathered just to get a glimpse of the trophy was unreal,” Williams says.

Read more: Shane Williams on his new passion for endurance sport

“Some of these people may not have known what the sport was two or three months ago.”

Shane Williams is an ambassador for Rugby World Cup 2019 host cities Osaka and Kobe.