It says something of the caliber of foreigners attracted to Japanese rugby that one of the game’s all-time greats will be making his final appearance as a professional in a playoff game for a spot in the Top League.
Shane Williams — the winner of 87 caps for Wales, four for the British and Irish Lions, IRB World Player of the Year in 2008 and the third-highest try scorer in test history — will call time on a stellar career Saturday following Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars’ game against Toyota Industries Shuttles at Nagoya’s Mizuho Rugby Stadium.
“Never say never but this will be my last game as a pro and I’m looking forward to it,” said Williams, who first retired in 2012, only to be persuaded to lace up the boots a few months later in Japan, where he has spent the past three years playing second-division rugby.
“It really was a bolt out of the blue and very uncharacteristic of me,” Williams said of the offer from Mitsubishi. “I had finished international rugby and playing with the Ospreys and wanted time with the family, so I initially said no. But I discussed it with my wife and she said I was still fit and I would regret it in four of five years when I wasn’t physically able to do it.”
Williams originally signed on for a year and made the most of the extra time he could spend with his wife and two young children.
“I was out of my comfort zone, as I was used to living in a small village where I was born and raised,” he said. “But I thoroughly enjoyed it and didn’t miss home which surprised me.”
That one year eventually turned into three, though the last two years have seen Williams’ family back home as the children have started at a Welsh-speaking school.
“Everyone has been so welcoming. But I don’t want to miss out on watching my kids grow up so that’s the reason it’s time to go home,” the 37-year-old wing said.
Williams is set to start Saturday’s game on the bench, the result of a recent bout of tendonitis due to his training regime ahead of this year’s London Marathon, and the presence of New Zealand’s 2011 Rugby World Cup hero Stephen Donald.
“Compared with rugby training it’s like chalk and cheese,” he said of the marathon, which he is running to raise funds for the World Wildlife Fund. “I’ve been getting the miles in and have really enjoyed the challenge, though I haven’t been training for two weeks which has been frustrating. But I’ve had a lot of physio and it’s much better now.”
While Saturday’s game marks his last as a pro, Williams said he hopes he will still be able to play a few games for his hometown club.
“There are no plans for slogging it out for a full season but it would be great to play a few games alongside my brother and my old schoolmates,” he said.
Alongside the odd game for Amman United, Williams will also help run the family oil distribution company and enter the bright lights of the media world.
Though hopefully he will have a bit more luck in his pre-match predictions than he did last week when he said Wales would beat England by “13 or 14 points, though I never count my chickens,” in the opening game of this year’s Six Nations.
One thing is for certain, while he will be saying sayonara to professional rugby, it won’t be farewell to Japan, rather “Gweld ti eto yn fuan,” as they say in Welsh, or “See you again soon.”
“I’ll definitely be back,” said Williams, who first played in Japan in 2001 when he toured with the Wales team.
“There has been a big change in the standard of rugby in Japan, not just at Top League level but also in (second division) Top East. I’ve really enjoyed playing and watching the rugby here and hope I can continue my relationship with Mitsubishi. I have a good rapport not just with my teammates but with the factory members as well. I hope I have influenced the club and company and of course I really want to come back for the World Cup in 2019, which will be fantastic.”
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