'Most of the games I will remember when I'm old and grey in my nursing home will involve the French'
February 20, 2014
Shane Williams scores against France in 2008 © PA Photos
"Shane Williams, who had replaced Dafydd James, was on his knees when he threw a pass that went perfectly to hand. The trouble was the hands belonged to Emile Ntamack, who strode away to score from 40 yards."
It was a less than sensational start to international rugby for Shane Williams, as a report from the Times on his debut shows. When the diminutive winger took his place on the bench for Wales' match against France on February 5, 2000, it was a day of firsts in Cardiff.
It was a game that marked the first time the plush Millennium Stadium was used by the national team for a Six Nations match; a group of players who would later create history within the confines of the 72,500-capacity ground stationed on the banks of the River Taff. But those halcyon days of the 2005 Grand Slam seemed an eternity away when the French stormed Wales' bastion and trounced the hosts 36-3.
Making his debut © PA Photos
"It was my first cap," Williams told ESPN. "I remember sitting on the bench, thinking 'please don't put me on'. I was that nervous. I managed to get a run out in the second-half and it felt great. I think I was chucked out there to see what I was capable of. Unfortunately one of my first touches was to give the ball to Ntamack. It wasn't the best of starts. But I was pleased to get my first cap, though I thought it would be my last."
It was a steep learning curve for the 22-year-old. Playing week-in-week-out for Neath saw him able to compete and dodge past the players at that level, but in his own words "you're never quite ready for the standard of international rugby".
As debuts go, facing the 1999 Rugby World Cup-finalists was not the easiest first Test for Williams. The French team of that era had the wonderful Ntamack on one flank with a young Christophe Dominici on the other. For Williams, it was a case of playing against his heroes "on a little green patch of grass in Cardiff".
It was a rude awakening as first tastes of international rugby go but one that gave him the thirst for more. Following his debut in 2000, Williams would play the French another nine times during his 11-year Test career. Although he ran out against numerous different wingers - he highlights the physicality of Aurelien Rougerie, the endurance of Dominici and sheer ability of Vincent Clerc as the most testing challenges - while the personnel shifted around, the French mentality and philosophy stayed the same, that of annual unpredictability.
"What I found playing against France, was that I never knew what was going to happen on the field. I know that sounds quite silly but you can analyse a lot of teams and individuals and work out how they're going to play but with France it was a lottery. You couldn't say for definite they were going to play a forward-driven game or they are going to be physical up front.
"You couldn't only say they would spread it wide when they got the ball. They are a bag of tricks and it hasn't changed over the last 40 years really. They were unpredictable and a side who were capable of scoring a try from their own line. You were always on their toes."
Matches against France, for Williams, seemed to oscillate between either the depths of despair or sheer elation. There was little in-between.
"Most of the games I will remember when I'm old and grey in my nursing home will involve the French. Some of them were good memories such as my first cap in 2000 but then we had the 2005 game where we came from behind to beat them in Paris and the 2008 Grand Slam.
"There are the others which you still think about, dwell on and wake up in cold sweats such as the 2011 World Cup semi-final."
Playing Wales in 2010 © PA Photos
That fateful game, from a Welsh point-of-view, was the final time Williams would face the French. It was a 11-year rivalry that has offered him a host of memories and come Friday evening when this year's Welsh vintage face France he will be sat in the stands of the Millennium Stadium readying himself for various punditry duties while also being one of the tens of thousands Welsh fans in the ground.
Much has been made of the French unpredictability, a factor sometimes rolled out purely for annual routine, but Williams is fully aware of the threat Philippe Saint-Andre's men pose the current crop of Welsh players.
"France have seen their fair share of coaches and managers and so on. Sometimes these coaches are first to say they aren't sure what's going on. It's the French mentality. Sometimes they give it their all and on other occasions they are lacklustre in their performance.
"But when they click, they're a very dangerous side to under-estimate. They're two from two and trust me, they will give it their all on Friday. Wales will have to perform suitably well off the back of a poor performance. It will be an arm-wrestle."
It was an incredible Grand Slam-laden career for Williams, but anchoring it at both ends in 2000 and 2011 were the wonderfully unpredictable and fiendish French.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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