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Johnny Williams: “There were sacrifices. It’s almost like a first cap ‘| Wales rugby union team

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JOhnny Williams has been waiting for this for a long time. The 25-year-old will start inside the center as Wales host New Zealand at Principality Stadium on Saturday and he has taken a tough road to get here. “There were a lot of sacrifices,” he says. “It almost looks like a first selection.”

In fact, it will be their fourth for Wales in a match where Alun Wyn Jones will set a new record for most test matches for a single country with 149 – not counting his 12 for the British and Irish Lions – and Gareth Anscombe returns to the rugby test after more than two years. But Williams’ accomplishment is no less impressive.

After scoring three tries in England’s triumphant Under-20 Rugby World Championship in 2016, and starring for London Irish and then Newcastle, the relentless midfielder had his career mapped out. Then, in June 2019, shortly after representing England in a non-international game against the Barbarians, Williams was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

He quickly recovered after a four-week course of chemotherapy and returned to the Falcons shortly before the Covid-19 bite. Rugby pitch at a standstill. He was soon out of contract and the brilliant career he had envisioned quickly evaporated.

It was then that he tugged at his Welsh roots. Born in Weston-super-Mare on the west coast of England, and raised in Reading, his full name is John Bleddyn Rhys Williams, a nod to “Prince of Centers” Bleddyn Williams. He had played for the Wales Under-16s and his Welsh father had instilled a deep love for the red jersey from an early age, taking his son across Severn’s mouth to the big stadium in Cardiff at every opportunity. The games against the All Blacks particularly stand out.

“I went to almost all of them,” Williams says. “To go back to 2004, when we lost by one point. [Gavin] Henson hit the post, Stephen Jones was playing. It’s crazy to think I’m going to play this game. It’s a bit surreal.

He has revealed himself to be the master of his own destiny. With rugby suspended across the UK due to the pandemic, he took a punt and called Wales coach Wayne Pivac to tell him about his ambitions. He signed for Scarlets after Hadleigh Parkes left for Japan and made his debut in August of last year. Three months later he started in Wales’ 18-0 win over Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup and a week later he scored a try in the 13-24 loss to England.

Johnny Williams: “There were sacrifices.  It’s almost like a first cap ‘|  Wales rugby union team

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Johnny Williams is training for the Six Nations this year. Photograph: Ben Evans / Huw Evans / Shutterstock

“It went really fast,” he says of his exponential rise. “I didn’t think I would be in setup as quickly as I was. But it’s gone like lightning since last year. I was playing my first Six Nations. Obviously it didn’t work for me, but it was great for the team.

Wales won their 28th title and 22nd Triple Crown, but Williams only played 24 minutes in the opener against Ireland before a head injury forced him to retire in of victory 21-16. He was deemed unfit for the 25-24 victory in Edinburgh and, with the team finding their rhythm, he was left out of the squad as his compatriots beat England 40-26 at home.

He returned to his club to face another obstacle after dislocating his shoulder in the Scarlets’ 57-14 loss to the Sale Sharks in April. “It was a difficult injury,” he explains. “Definitely one of the worst I’ve had. The rehabilitation did not stop. It’s going to be continuous throughout my career now because there has been nerve damage. But I’m in good shape, I’m in good health, I’m ready.

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The game against the All Blacks has always been the target. He has only played 133 minutes for the Scarlets this season, but has worked tirelessly to ensure he was in contention for a game that weighs on Welsh rugby. It has been 68 years and 31 games since Wales last beat New Zealand.

“We are all aware of the challenge and we all know the story. We could be the first group to go beat them for almost 70 years. It’s a huge carrot at the end of the game to claim the victory. There have obviously been a lot of dark times recently, so what that would do for the nation would be huge. This story means something, so we need to fix this. “

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