In The Bubble

“Fuck off Scrumcap, you’re no fucking good,” bellowed the man in the red woolly hat into the cold Cork night air.

His friends chuckled. Everyone else in the terrace shifted awkwardly. Duncan Williams had just knocked on the ball at a ruck and the crowd had gone silent – after the groans, that is. Every stadium groans when someone fucks up, it’s just the way of it, but the silence after the groan is where some people reveal who they are to all around them and the man in the red woolly hat was revealing plenty about his. It was the depersonalisation of it. You’re not even a name, you’re an item of clothing. Scrumcap. The contempt was in the vagueness of it.

After the referee signalled the scrum turnover with his arm, the crowd dampened to that loud murmur that’s both loud and quiet at the same time. Sometimes someone will try to crack up the crowd with an overly long “MUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNSTER” or a wisecrack at an opposition talisman but on this night, it was different. While the forwards got back to their feet after the last carrying set, the man in the red woolly hat started up again, louder.

“He’s only here because his ould fella pays his contract.”

His friends weren’t chuckling this time. It was bad craic before but it was even worse craic now. Even to people who shout abuse at players during a game. An older man with a white beard and a ceramic pin covered baseball hat told him in response, loud enough to be heard by most in the vicinity; “that’s enough of that shit now.” And it was. The man in the red woolly hat seemed to skulk back into the throng, as guys like him always do when the laughing gallery disappears.

I can’t remember what PRO12 game it was that I heard this at, but it always stuck with me. The man in the red woolly hat wasn’t a rival fan abusing Duncan Williams for making a mistake that most scrumhalves make every week, it was a Munster fan bedecked in the 2008 Heineken Cup winning navy jersey. I remember thinking that I hoped Williams didn’t hear it but thinking about how naive that was. Williams seemed to turn around as it was being said 10m away from him in the East Terrace in Musgrave Park so he probably did hear it. I hoped he was in the bubble of the game and the insult just garbled in with the rest of the noise. He didn’t sell the insult and got on with his game.

It was just another moment in the professional life of Duncan Williams.

Since his debut in 2009, Duncan Williams has been a guy competing with Ireland’s incumbent #9 be that Tomás O’Leary or Conor Murray and has always suffered in the juxtaposition. Unfairly, in my mind. The perception was – and is – that he’s a worse player than he actually is.

The man himself said as much in the Examiner last year;

“You know what people say about perception. People might have thought [2016/2017] was my best season but I think I played just as well in other seasons and because the perception out there was that I was useless, people didn’t think so. But, yeah, if people want to think that, they can think that, but in my own mind that’s not the case.”

For me, Duncan Williams had objectively good years in 2013/2014, 2014/2015 and 2016/2017. He showed exactly how good he can be last Saturday against the Chiefs in Sandy Park, just like he did against Toulouse in 2017 and just like he did away to Glasgow in the Heineken Cup that same year. His biggest issue has been consistency of performance and fitness, which have been the main issues that have held him back at varying stages of his career, just like they have for every other player that reaches Heineken Cup level of representation and no further. He, like most professional players, will probably never play for his country, especially at this stage in his career, but he takes more abuse than 90% of them and often from supporters of his own team – why is that?

Is he being berated for not being a world class scrumhalf?

That’s what it seems to be. Maybe we’re spoiled by having two test level scrumhalves and one potential all-time great in succession in the scrumhalf position over the last 20 years – Stringer, O’Leary and Murray – so that when some people see a guy who isn’t quite at that level it seems to provoke a kind of fury in them.

The scrumhalf touches the ball more than anyone on the pitch so any problems there are more visible to your average punter than, say, a second row. When Munster play badly as a whole, Williams is often the scapegoat if he happens to have started. It happens every time, like clockwork.

I know I’ve criticised him in match reviews and other articles when he’s played purely – while trying to be as objective and impersonal as possible – but that comes with the gig (and it’s the worst part after dealing with people post-Munster defeat). But I’ve always used his name.

Here’s what I wrote about Williams in a recent article when assessing his strengths and weaknesses as clinically as I could.

I’d stand over the positives and negatives I wrote there. But when you take those strengths and weaknesses and apply them to most scrumhalves playing the game in the Gallagher Premiership, TOP14 and PRO14, you’ll see it fits most of the guys that don’t reach test level, which is the elite level in our sport. Those #9s have good days and bad days. Often, the difference between a 30 cap test player and a guy who doesn’t get to camp level is luck and consistency. Duncan Williams has had way more good days for Munster then he has bad, but just wait until the next time his form dips for the men with woolly hats to pop out again post-Exeter. If you listen to them, he shouldn’t even be in the squad.

Duncan Williams has received contracts under four different Munster coaches but you’ll still see fellas on their keyboards claiming he’s got no business at Munster.

I know who’s got no business being involved at Munster. Do you? Let’s see – is it the guy on the keyboard slating players in a red shirt at home on his couch or on the terraces, or is it the guy with 159 Munster caps? It’s a conundrum.

Whatever about his consistency of skills, the one thing you could never accuse Williams of is lacking heart. Imagine showing up to your place of work each week knowing that every mistake will be greeted with roars of abuse at worst, polite groans at best. Imagine showing up to work knowing that, if you have a bad day at the office, you’d be better off not checking your social media for a week or Googling your name.

You’d have to have bollocks for that.

You’d have to have grit.

You’d have to have a love for the club you play for and the squad you play with.

These are the qualities that Duncan Williams showed against Exeter on Sunday when he tracked the Chiefs on a linebreak and made three tackles to keep to them out.

Three. After 60 minutes of hard rugby where he was box kicking (as good as I’ve ever seen him, btw), passing, counter-rucking, scragging tackles and cleaning up possession. Williams showed the kind of desire and work-rate that wins you games or, in this case, draws them.

It was colossal.

I wonder where that woolly hatted man was when he was watching that. Did he cheer for “scrum cap”? Or maybe he was preparing that old chestnut of “if they don’t want to be abused by me in the stadium or online by me and my four followers they shouldn’t be paid rugby players” argument that’s so self-indulgent and petulant a toddler would find it a bit too much. Who cares where he was, though?

I know where Duncan Williams was. Duncan Williams was in Sandy Park in the European Cup, chasing down a runner and saving Munster’s bacon before going again for another 14 minutes. Another good day in the massive pile. I hope the men in woolly hats remember that pile the next time he has a poor one. Somehow I doubt it.

But we’ll remember.