Wales as a passionate rugby-mad nation affords mythical status to its playing greats and the red-shirted hordes who packed the Millennium Stadium on Saturday gave winger Shane Williams a fitting send off on his final international appearance.
Williams, despite his diminutive 1.7m frame, which now looks out of place in a game dominated by bulked-up giants, has cut international defenses to shreds in a 11-year Test career.
The 34-year-old scored his 58th international try on his 87th and last appearance for his country, giving one final glimpse of his finishing prowess with a last-gasp score that sweetened only slightly a 24-18 defeat at the hands of Australia.
With a defense-stopping sidestep and the acceleration to rival an Olympic sprinter, there has been no finer sight in international rugby in the past decade than Williams darting down the left touchline, ball in hand.
Like his compatriot and namesake J.J. Williams, the winger from the great Wales sides of the 1970s, Shane Williams proved one of the game’s most clinical finishers.
Such was the emotion of his send-off on Saturday that Williams, who led the team out at the start, struggled to wipe away the tears as he clutched his two young children in a pitchside farewell.
An hour later, he cut a more composed figure in the post-match press conference.
“The support this week has been unbelievable, overwhelming at times,” he said. “Today, I know I’m a bit biased, but that was the best atmosphere I’ve certainly played amongst.”
“There has been no better place to play than at the Millennium Stadium ... it’s where it started for me and where it has finished. The support at the end was fantastic ... because of them I was bawling my eyes out,” he added.
Williams, the 2008 IRB player of the year and part of Wales’ 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam-winning sides, said he could not have scripted the final seconds of the game any better after scampering over for his late try.
“It was a tough game against a very good Australian side who had the majority of the ball, but it couldn’t have finished any better for me really to score a try ... obviously mixed emotions, it’s nice to score tries but it’s even better when you’re winning but it wasn’t to be,” he said.
Williams, a British and Irish Lions tourist in 2005 and 2009, believes he is leaving one of the most talented and youthful Wales squads he has known, one which has the potential to “do great things.”
“We have a great number of excellent individuals coming through,” he said. “When we get them playing as a complete team, I have no doubt that this squad can be one of the best teams in the world.”