Martyn Williams: Ex-captain on life as Wales' new team manager

Jonathan Humphreys, Martyn Williams and Huw Bennett
Martyn Williams (centre) with Wales assistant coaches Jonathan Humphreys (left) and Huw Bennett

There are few people who could feel as much at home at the Principality Stadium as Martyn Williams but, when Wales played the Barbarians there in November, the legendary former captain looked like someone on work experience on the home side's bench.

That's because, in a way, he was.

While Wayne Pivac had the daunting task of following Warren Gatland's 12-year reign as Wales' most successful head coach, Williams was succeeding the man sat next to him as Wales' team manager after 18 years in the role.

Alan 'Thumper' Phillips had become a Welsh rugby institution having done the wide-ranging job - anything from assisting with match-day coaching to arranging training facilities or booking hotels - since 2001.

This was his final match as Wales team manager so, as part of the handover process, he had Williams by his side to spend a day seeing first-hand what the job entails.

"He has been unbelievably helpful to me," says Williams, who officially started in the role this month.

"When it was announced I had the job he was one of the first to pick up the phone.

"I had a coffee with him and chatted for a couple of hours and he allowed me in for the Barbarians week just to shadow what he did, what he does on match-day and during the week.

"As a player you think you know everything but it's only when you are on the other side you learn how little you know what goes on behind the scenes.

"It has been a pretty hectic start to the new year."

As a player, Williams was a modern great, captaining his country, winning 100 caps and touring three times with the British Irish and Lions.

He would have leant on Phillips on countless occasions during his playing career, and now it will be Williams' responsibility to field the squad's various requests.

"I joked with Wayne he has the easy job following Gats [Gatland] because he was only there 12 years," the former Cardiff Blues flanker says.

"I am trying to follow Thumper who has been here 18 years. He did an amazing job. I have only been in the job just over a week and I have learned fairly quickly how big his job was.

"You make everything work for everyone else. It has been a steep learning curve but he has done an incredible job."

Martyn Williams won his 100th cap in his final appearance for Wales against the Barbarians in 2012
Martyn Williams won his 100th cap in his final appearance for Wales against the Barbarians in 2012

'A big eye opener'

Williams' first campaign as team manager will be this year's Six Nations, which Wales will begin with a home match against Italy on Saturday, 1 February.

With Phillips moving on to become the Lions' director of operations, Williams has to fend for himself as he grapples with the job's many and varied duties.

"The biggest eye-opener for me is that you come in as a player and your whole focus is the Six Nations and the first game," he says.

"I thought that would be the same for me when I got the job but you can't just think about that.

"There is the summer tour of Japan and New Zealand, where I went just before Christmas for four or five days which was tough with the body clock.

"As a player you are ultimately looking after yourself to ensure everything is okay. Now you have a completely different mindset.

"I had an email this week about the 2023 World Cup so it just goes to show there is so much forward-planning. As a player you just take it block by block."

After retiring in 2012, Williams became a popular BBC pundit and a regular on the Scrum V podcast before joining the Cardiff Blues board last August.

Now the 44-year-old is back working in rugby full-time, getting to grips with his new position.

"The main role from me I see is making sure everything is in place for the management and players to do what they have to do and perform at the highest level they can," he adds.

"Ultimately, at elite level sport now, what goes on behind the scenes is pretty incredible.

"It's not just the players. There is a squad of 38 and perhaps a backroom staff of 27 as well.

"You have a responsibility of making sure the medics and strength and conditioning guys have everything they want.

"I have been in Dublin this week meeting the hotel manager over there and making sure they have training pitches.

"It is really difficult to give a job description to it because anything you can think of to do with rugby you are involved in, which I did not realise.

"I just thought it might be a bit a jolly and go on a couple of recces here and there, but I have learned quickly there is far more than that."

The upcoming Six Nations campaign will be both startlingly new for Williams and reassuringly familiar.

While being team manager will take some getting used to, he will at least be surrounded by people he knows.

"You have about 50 or 60 people and it's about managing that as well and everybody is a human," says Williams.

"I played with Alun Wyn [Jones, Wales captain] a fair bit and then George North and Ken Owens, but the rest I have seen on the television and watched them and commentated on them but I don't know them personally.

"A big thing for me, particularly that first week, is getting to know all the players.

"I think it's the most talented group of players Wales have ever had and that's why it is a pleasure coming into this group.

"Having watched them from the outside, what they have done over the last two or three years has been incredible."

Sustaining that success will be a challenge for Pivac and the new coaching staff.

Williams' job will be to ensure Wales have the best possible resources and preparation to defend their Six Nations title - and to keep the players in check.

"I don't care how they play as long as they behave," Williams jokes.

"It's a really exciting squad with a good balance. It's exciting."