Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin’s Welsh derby tales from the pitch

Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin’s Welsh derby tales from the pitch

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Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin played in countless Christmas derbies between them over the years and have some tremendous tales to tell.

They will be on duty again this festive season as pundits with Premier Sports and they are looking forward to some absorbing encounters.

Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas caught up with the two Wales Grand Slam winners to talk derbies and hear some Christmas crackers.

Q: What are the Christmas derby memories that stand out from your playing days?

Shane Williams: I remember 2005 was a big derby for me personally because we were playing Cardiff Blues at home.

You had players like Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins. Shanks was there. International players who you have to perform against.

I remember tackling Mike Phillips in the first couple of minutes in the game and he punched me straight in the eye, which doesn’t sound too unfamiliar does it, with him kicking off!

The problem was I was getting married on the Sunday and this game was just before it. He deliberately punched me in the eye so I had a black eye for my wedding photos! So that sums up Mike Phillips and sums up the local derbies. It’s all about getting one over on your opposition.

He bought me a beer and apologised for it at my wedding, so it was all right afterwards!

Tom Shanklin: I remember one game against the Dragons about 2007, we had Lee Thomas, who was a fairly young 10, and he was playing against Ceri Sweeney.

Sweeney kept hitting him really late all the time off the ball. After the third or fourth attempt, he hit him really late. So I dropped on top of Sweeney and started hammering his head, in a friendly way! Nothing too aggressive because he’s a good mate of mine.

But then, after the game, I had loads of texts off the Dragons boys saying ‘Oh thanks, well done, we have been desperate to put one into Sweeney for about five years’.

Q: Which team did you relish playing against most during the festive derbies?

SW: The hardest place to go over that period was Rodney Parade. The crowd were awful for the Ospreys and great for the Dragons. Every slight mistake you made, the whole of the ground was on its feet and screaming at you which was always very intimidating.

Cardiff Blues was a big tester because there were people like Rhys Williams, Craig Morgan and Tom James that I had to play well against.

But my favourite place to play was Stradey Park. Coming from the Llanelli region, in Carmarthenshire, don’t tell anyone, but I always wanted to play for the Scarlets.

So to represent Neath and then the Ospreys down there was always huge. I absolutely loved it. The crowd hated me, they hated Neath and the Ospreys, so to get one over on the Scarlets was always a big one.

I remember in 2008 when James Hook scored. I made a break down the right-hand side and nice offload and hands all the way down the back-line and Hooky scored in the corner and we beat the Scarlets. That was one of my most favourite rugby moments, not just in local derbies. That was a huge win for us. For once, we silenced the Stradey Park crowd, only for a bit mind. That was always one of my favourite games to play in.

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TS : The Dragons was always a good Christmas derby, especially at home in the Arms Park. They would always try and do something, like run off the pitch at half-time to show how fit they were. But they never really ended up winning.

Christmas time was just exciting because it’s your showpiece. You get the biggest crowds, the biggest viewing figures, it’s your shop window to show what you can do.

My biggest games were always the ones where you were playing against opposition that were vying for that international shirt.

There are other games that matter to bring you up the league table, but I was always in the back of my mind looking at who I am playing against, who wants to play in that No 13 jersey for Wales. They were the ones I was really concentrating on.

You know you have to perform, you have to be better than your opposite number, you have to make people – your team-mates, the crowd, the pundits – all realise that is why you play for your country.

So in the back of my mind I was always looking at who was coming up behind me, who were my threats internationally.

That would be the Ospreys a lot, with Sonny Parker, or the Dragons, with Hal Luscombe or Matthew Watkins.

Q: Can you give us a sense of what the Christmas period is like for a player?

SW: It’s my favourite time of the year anyway, Christmas, so you are always on a high, you are always busting a gut in training. It’s the shop window and it’s exciting.

My favourite games were the ones over the Christmas period because that’s when you are joyful and triumphant, as they say, and wanting to do your best. I used to love all the games.

It’s a tough period as well because you are just coming off the back of your international campaigns and you’ve played a lot of rugby by this period of the season. It’s also a time where you don’t want to get any injuries. If you do, it’s at the back of your mind, am I going to be fit for the Six Nations?

You are wondering if the coach is going to bring in Mark Jones or Leigh Halfpenny instead because you have picked up an injury and you are thinking is this guy going to take my jersey?

The Christmas derbies are your last chance to prove a point to the gaffer in the Welsh team.

If I had a poor game against a Mark Jones, a George North or a Craig Morgan, then I would be as miserable as sin through the Christmas period thinking ‘Oh my God, I think I’ve just lost my Welsh jersey’.

So even though it’s a great time for rugby, it’s also very stressful as well. A lot of players do lose their international position during this period.

The intensity goes up five, ten per cent, I can assure you, because there are a lot of personal battles out there. It can really take effect on the body.

So it’s an exciting period, but you are also mindful of things that can happen during that time as well.

TS: There is a lot of nervousness because they are big games and you know all the selectors are watching and places are up for grabs. You would have butterflies on the morning of the derbies. You knew the pressure was on you to perform.

There is also a lot of jealousy because you have mates outside rugby and they would all be going out on Black Friday and having a massive month and you can’t.

You can’t eat too much. You have got to be careful how much you eat and drink because you have got a game on Boxing Day. You have really got to look after your diet. So there was an element of feeling a little bit left out, but I suppose that just comes with playing professional sport.

Now you have finished playing, you can pick at Celebrations and Quality Street as much as you want!

Q: Moving to the present day, which players are you particularly looking forward to watching over the upcoming Christmas derbies?

SW: I will start with the Ospreys.

I really enjoy Mat Protheroe on the wing there. He looks slighter than I did. He looks about 60 kilos, but, God, he gets stuck in, doesn’t he? He is fun to watch.

I am a big fan of Kieran Williams as well. It’s a big chance for them to put their hands up in these local derbies. That’s exciting for me.

With the Scarlets, I pretty much pick Steff Evans every time they are playing. I really enjoy how he plays, he is gutsy, he comes off the wing, he offers himself inside and outside 10 and is always heavily involved. That’s why he comes away with so many Man of the Match performances.

Also an honourable mention for Jac Morgan in the back row. He has really come up the ranks. He was told he was too small, but he has really stuck it up them. It’s a shame he is injured now.

At the Blues, Owen Lane has come back from injury and scored a cracking try the other week. I want to see him fit and pushing for the Wales shirt.

Lastly, with the Dragons, I am a big Rhodri Williams fan. I actually played against his dad! So I will big Rhodri up. He is a good local lad.

TS: I am going to go Johnny McNicholl at the Scarlets now he is back fit.

He was really unlucky with Wales. They were crying out for someone like him in the team, someone who is different to the mould of a winger, not going to stay on his wing. His offloading and creative game is probably the best in that squad.

I’ve heard really good things about Morgan Morris at the Ospreys and I’d like to see a little bit more game-time from him hopefully.

At the Dragons, Taine Basham is exciting. Yeah, he does make the odd mistake but when he gets ball in hand he can be very effective. Jamie Roberts has been playing really well for them. There is still life in him yet and he is quite key to their attack. He has been making a lot of inroads at 12 and has been very busy.

With the Blues, Jarrod Evans. I still think there could be a spot for him with Wales. He’s the most natural attacking 10 we have got fit at the moment.

But there is a bit more to rugby than just being able to attack every single time you get the ball. If he can prove that he can control games and up his kick percentage off the tee, which is vital at the top level, then I am sure we might see him a bit more in a red shirt.

Steff Evans in action for the Scarlets

Q: You mentioned Steff Evans there Shane. You had a few haircuts in your time. Did you ever contemplate going down the same road as him?

SW: I have mentioned Steff’s mullet out of complete respect when I have been commentating. Fair play to him, you have got to have some cojones to pull that off. All I would say is don’t cut that hair Steff as you are playing well at the moment.

I have had some dodgy haircuts over the years. I didn’t go full mullet, I had a semi version.

TS: Oh come on, in 2005 that was near enough a mullet. You looked like David Bowie from Labyrinth.

SW: It’s nice to actually have hair Shanks, isn’t it, so you can do these kind of haircuts!

Q: Do you sense a more upbeat vibe around regional rugby going into the derbies on the back of a positive start to Europe?

TS: The biggest difference for me is having the international players back. It makes a huge difference to the quality of the teams. Certain sides have struggled in the PRO14 during international periods because we don’t have the strength in depth to compete with the Irish. They are tier one and we are below that. The Irish provinces are a class above everyone else in that league.

But as we get our internationals back, we can compete and Europe has proven this. You have just got to look at the Bath-Scarlets game and the Ospreys’ wins in the Challenge Cup.

So it’s far more positive now after these last couple of weeks. It’s just boosted confidence and I think we will see some really good derbies over Christmas.

It’s bragging rights and you are vying for positions. Teams just up it that extra five to ten per cent over this period. You are playing against mates and against players who are in the same position as you internationally. So I think we are going to see some really exciting derbies.

Premier Sports’ Tom Shanklin

SW: We need a bit of positivity in our lives.

The Scarlets are two from two in Europe, albeit Toulon didn’t fancy the conditions or whatever it was, it doesn’t matter.

The Blues won a tough game up in Newcastle and, all of a sudden, the Ospreys seem to be doing particularly well with two from two in the Challenge Cup with full bonus points. We didn’t think we would be saying that this season.

It was a big job for Toby Booth to take over and take them out of the doldrums. But I have watched several of the Ospreys games now and there is definitely a different attitude.

So there seems to be a little bit of a buzz in the air and we do need it at the moment because it’s doom and gloom at times and bad news one after the other.

We need all the positive news we can get, so we will take every victory and every good performance.

Join Tom Shanklin and Eddie Butler for Dragons v Cardiff Blues on Boxing Day live from Rodney Parade on Premier Sports 1 from 2.30pm.

Shane Williams joins an experienced Premier Sports line-up for Ospreys against Scarlets on Boxing Day live on Premier Sports 1 from 5.05pm with Ross Harries, Sean Holley, Wyn Gruffydd and Lauren Jenkins.

Join Tom Shanklin, Shane Williams, Ross Harries, Eddie Butler and Lauren Jenkins live on New Year’s Day for coverage of Cardiff Blues against Ospreys on Premier Sports 1 from 7.20pm.

Tune-in for Scarlets v Dragons live on Premier Sports 1 from 4.45pm on New Year’s Day.

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