Dream ending - except for the result
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
December 3, 2011
Wales' Shane Williams celebrates his last-gasp score but it was not enough to beat Australia in Cardiff © Getty Images
Ignore the result. This was Shane Williams' day. OK, the scoreboard may not say so but he did his best to bow out of the international stage on a winning note.
There was no escaping the significance of the occasion that drew over 60,000 people to the Millennium Stadium for a money-making match that may have lacked the intensity of their recent Rugby World Cup clash but carried arguably more emotion than any 'bronze final' could ever boast.
Even the man himself admitted to being struck by nerves the like of which he had not felt since the early days of his epic Test career. And while he may have been able to turn a blind eye to the tributes brandished by fans in the stands, there is little doubt he would have noticed his greatest tries being played on the stadium's big screens as he warmed up with his team-mates. No pressure then.
Fuelled by replays of his outstanding service for his country, the crowd roared their approval when he made his way onto the field of play ahead of his team-mates. Firmly gripping the match ball, he saluted his well-wishers but his touch was not so assured once the game had begun with an early pass escaping his clutches.
Clearly keen to make an impact he lived off scraps in attack but underlined the fact he is far from just a try-scorer - although he does happen to be rather good at that having scored 60 of them in 91 appearances for Wales and the Lions, a tally that leaves him third on the all-time list behind Japan's Daisuke Ohata (69) and Australia's David Campese (64). It was his superb, last-ditch tackle that denied Australia's Lachie Turner a first half try - along with the TMO - and it was Williams again who sped to the rescue in the second half to haul down the same Wallabies rival after the Welshman had gifted away possession by way of a loose pass.
But as grateful as the crowd were for his input on that side of the ball, they had come here to see their hero sign off in trademark style and luckily his team-mates had the same desire. With the game was lost, thanks largely to a 10-minute spell of uncharacteristic sieve-like defending, and the clock all but expired, Wales dug deep to give the crowd what they wanted.
The forwards peppered the Wallabies' line but you sensed they didn't want to cross the whitewash. It was all about creating the opportunity for their retiring winger and with the visitors stretched, the ball found its way into Williams' hands. What followed was, as Williams later explained, was the stuff of dreams with his quick feet taking out of the clutches of Berrick Barnes and past Anthony Faingaa.
The expression on Williams' face, before he touched the ball down in acrobatic style, said it all. The relief. The joy. He had been able to end his Test career with an exclamation mark. The stadium erupted as if the try had won Wales the World Cup. They hadn't, they didn't even win the game, but it didn't matter. Every fan got what they wanted -Williams doing what he does best. They were there when Wales' greatest ever try scorer said goodbye with an ideal parting gift.
Emotion understandably took hold as the TV cameras tried to capture his thoughts with what words he could muster drowned out by wave after wave of appreciation from the stands. Williams, who soaked up the atmosphere on a lap of honour, was full of praise himself - especially for the fans for making the occasion so special - but it is they who are truly thankful for a decade of outstanding service and no-end of happy memories.
The fanfare surrounding Williams' farewell all but eclipsed an impressive display from the Wallabies who were full value for their victory. It is easy to forget that the year started so badly for Robbie Deans' side with a bruising defeat at the hands of Samoa - on their own patch. They have come a long way in the months since with the Tri-Nations title an obvious highlight while there was no shame in their World Cup semi-final exit at the hands of the All Blacks where the emotion-overload dwarfed even this occasion.
Much may be made of Wales' rising stars, but the Wallabies are at least one-step ahead of them on the development front. In his first Test start at No.10, the 21-year-old James O'Connor looked as cool as they come, while 23-year-old scrum-half Will Genia was at his game-bossing best. Add to the mix the likes of David Pocock (23) and the currently sidelined Kurtley Beale (22) and Quade Cooper (23) and maybe Wales will not get everything their way come the next World Cup as many are predicting.
Luckily for us we do not have to wait that long to see these two sides go at it again with a three-Test series Down Under in June next year sure to be one of the highlights of the rugby year. Before then, Wales will begin the post-Shane Williams era with their latest assault on the Six Nations crown and can expect to be labelled as favourites even without the services of their wing wizard.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.