The British & Irish Lions have nothing to fear in the third and final Test if Liam Williams fields every high ball as surely as he has handled the media this week. Sample question: “Liam, who’s the best in the air in the world?” Answer: “You’re looking at him.” Never let it be said the Wales full-back lacks either chutzpah or a sense of humour.
In theory it is not the worst way of defusing the rising tension before Saturday’s series-defining finale, regardless of whether some people choose to roll their eyes and accuse him of over-confidence. As Williams rightly says: “If I don’t believe in myself, nobody else is going to believe in me.” Different strokes for different folks and all that.
There is no getting away from the reality, though, that the Lions and Williams will have to be aerially secure to bring the world champion Springboks crashing down to earth. In last week’s second Test there were times when it seemed the ball was coated with invisible grease so often did the Lions’ back three end up spilling it. Any repeat and a home win will be pretty much guaranteed.
Hence the recall of Williams, who has a habit of responding positively to the biggest occasions. Who can forget the daring breakout which led to the try of the series for Sean O’Brien against the All Blacks four years ago? How grateful would Lions fans be for some kind of spectacular sequel in the wake of two Tests which, so far, have yielded rather more spills than thrills.
The 30-year-old former scaffolder enjoyed his Auckland breakout as much as anyone – “It was all a bit of a blur; I watch it back sometimes and think: ‘Jesus, what was I thinking?’” – but accepts his main priority this weekend will be to defuse the “bombs” that are bound to rain down on him. “You know when you play 15 that’s basically your job. I’ve played left wing, right wing and 15. Your job is to catch balls and to chase kicks. Every little thing else you do, you add to the team.”
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At times, with the menacing Springbok chasers hurtling down on him, a significant amount of bravery is required, not that Williams necessarily sees it that way. “When the ball is in the air I’m not one to step back. Whether I get hurt in the process, that’s just the way it is. Of course we work on our technique, trying to get high and stay square, but you’ve got to have a bit of balls as well.”
There can be a touch of luck involved, too; the bounce of a rugby ball off an opponent’s outstretched fingers can be less than predictable. All Williams can do is prepare for every eventuality, latterly with the help of strength and conditioning coach Huw Bennett and his padded “turtle” suit which allows jumpers to practice their leaping technique in slightly more comfort.
Years spent in the company of Leigh Halfpenny have also taught Williams exactly what is required, with alert “escort” runners also crucial in preventing the Bok chasers from causing too much havoc. If one or two of his teammates track back and offer him some protection, without changing their running lines, it makes the job far easier. “It’s huge. If you run back at the same speed as [the opposition] do, they won’t get into that hole [in front of the catcher] or be able to get up.”
Relatively short, contestable kicks are fast becoming the speciality of both teams, with little chips from Handrè Pollard and Faf de Klerk yielding both South Africa’s tries in the second Test and Robbie Henshaw’s near miss also resulting from a close-range kick from Conor Murray. Almost as vital are restarts, with memories still fresh of the botched kick-off reception late on which almost cost Ken Owens and the Lions dear in the final Test of the 2017 series.
Williams, understandably, would prefer a less stressful conclusion this time. “Hopefully I’m not put in that position on the weekend and we’ll have clinched the series 2-1 within 80 minutes ... that’s the plan.” It has been a surprise to many, particularly in Wales, that “Sanjay” has not started before now and, by his own admission, there have been moments when it has felt like “a long old trip, especially when you’re not getting picked.”
So how will he feel if, as expected, South Africa do kick almost everything again and he becomes the busiest man on the field? “Look, I wanted to be on that pitch whether they wanted to play running rugby or whatever. We’ve been working hard on that aerial contest, we know it’s going to be a big challenge in the air and it’s one we’re really looking forward to.”
The competitive instinct that has brought him 71 caps for Wales, in other words, will trump any sense of self-preservation and banish any lingering nerves. “I’d play right now if I could, the next two days are the worst. I am only human ... I do feel a bit of pressure. It [catching high balls] has been talked about quite a bit and it is something I am going to pride myself on at the weekend. But we’re just excited now.” If he wants to be officially hailed as the world’s best “bomb defuser”, now is the time to prove it.
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