By Nick Mulvenney
TOKYO (Reuters) – Shane Williams once looked like the last of the dying breed as a smaller man in the game of rugby and the Wales and British and Irish Lions winger has been delighted by the re-emergence of the diminutive back at this World Cup.
Williams, who stands 5ft 7in tall, scored 60 tries in 91 matches over an 11-year international career, relying on pace and footwork in a game increasing dominated by power.
At this World Cup, the likes of South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe and Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima have shown that lightning speed and dancing feet can still be effective in the modern game.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” Williams, 42, told Reuters at an event organised by Rugby World Cup partners Land Rover.
“It did seem to be going that way where you had complete athletes on the wing who were running the 100 metres in less than 11 seconds and benching 200 kilos in the gym.
“But for the last two or three seasons, we’ve seen the likes of Cheslin and Matsushima making defences work. It’s very difficult for guys like Eben Etzebeth at 6ft 7in getting low and trying to tackle the smaller guys around the waist.
“It’s starting to suit the smaller guys now, it’s certainly been a breath of fresh air where the star players have been 5ft 6in, 5ft 7in, under 80 kilos and have been scoring four and five tries and setting the World Cup alight.
“Long may it continue.”
Kolbe, who is also 5ft 7in tall, missed South Africa’s semi-final win over Wales but coach Rassie Erasmus expects him to be available for Saturday’s final against England.
Williams said he had been impressed by the South African’s whole game, not just his running.
“He’s been a revelation for South Africa, he’s just a joy to watch,” said Williams.
“Not only does he score tries and have great feet but he’s a warrior. He puts his body on the line, he tackles like he’s 6ft 5in and he runs into brick walls like he’s 6ft 5in.
“We’ve seen that with other smaller players at this World Cup. If a coach tells you to do it, you do it, whether it hurts or not.
“I’d love to see him fit and play in the final. I’ll have my fingers crossed for Cheslin because I love watching him play.”
Regardless of whether Kolbe plays at Yokohama, Williams thinks that some of the greatest outside back talent in the game will be on display at Yokohama International Stadium on Saturday.
While South Africa have Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi and Sbu Nkosi, England are likely to start with Anthony Watson and Jonny May.
“I think Watson has been busy, great feet, probably hasn’t scored as many tries as he’s deserved but he’s beaten the man every time he’s got the ball,” he said.
“We all know what Mapimpi is capable of even though he spent most of the semi-final chasing kicks. Jonny May is a true finisher, absolute gas on the wing there.
“The back three of both sides are absolutely deadly but I think it suits England at the moment because they do try and get the ball to their wingers whereas South Africa kick and try and force the error before getting the ball to Mapimpi and Nkosi.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Christian Radnedge)