Get to know the powerful new addition to the Scarlets back-line who is part of Wales’ autumn squad

Scarlets centre Johnny Williams

He burst on to the scene as a teenager at London Irish, was diagnosed with cancer while at Newcastle and is now embarking on a new chapter at Scarlets.

Here Scarlets centre Johnny Williams, who has been named in Wayne Pivac’s Wales squad for the Autumn Nations Cup, tells his story…

I started playing rugby when I was six. My dad is big into rugby and took me to Redingensians; I never looked back. I played once or twice at No 8 but I definitely prefer being in the backs. Lifting people in lineouts and scrums – I prefer watching that stuff!

My first year out of school I was playing for London Irish in the Premiership. We weren’t doing too well and I was chucked in at the deep end in a high-pressure environment. A lot was riding on those games but it made me a lot stronger as a rugby player, knowing how to deal with those situations from a young age.

I’m still considered young but I’ve got more experience than most 23-year-olds because I was thrown in quite early. It’s a shame we got relegated that year but I was grateful for the opportunity and the experience it gave me.

You can’t just be a crash-ball player now. That’s how the game is evolving. I was bigger than my school friends but don’t consider myself big in a professional environment – there are some monsters! I pride myself on my ball-carrying and it is a strength, but you have to have more strings to your bow. I back my skill-set, my offloading, my kicking.

My time at Newcastle was up and down. In my first year we played really good rugby but had a tough start against top-of-the-league teams, got into a bit of a losing habit and lost confidence. We beat Toulon and Montpellier in Europe, which are some of the best moments of my rugby career, but we also got relegated, which was a massive step back from coming fourth the previous year.

I went to see three doctors before being diagnosed with testicular cancer last year. Two told me there were no lumps and bumps so not to worry. I left it for a few months, but it (testicle) just got bigger, more swollen, harder and more painful.

I took a small knock to that area in training and it still hurt hours later, so I dropped my pride about asking the club doctor to look at my nuts. He rushed me for a scan, they found a tumour and I was booked in for surgery to have it removed.

I had to do one course of chemo. If you don’t have chemo there’s a 20% chance of it coming back and if you do it’s 5%, so whilst I was young I opted to do it. I spent four days in hospital on a 24-7 drip. I wasn’t prepared for how intense it is and was quite ill for two weeks afterwards.

It’s given me a new perspective on life. I don’t take my health or my job for granted. I never thought it would happen to me and was quite naive to it. I was lucky that I knew two players who’d had it, so I could ask them questions and knew they’d both got back playing. It was good they caught it early and my goal was then to be back playing as soon as possible.

I trained through December and I was back playing in January. Even those first games back I felt like I was playing my best rugby and that I was back where I left off, but then Covid hit and that was a momentum ruiner.

Moving to the Scarlets is a massive opportunity. I know the coaches (Glenn Delaney and Richard Whiffin) from London Irish; those guys really believed in me as an 18-year-old.

Plus, attacking rugby is in the Scarlets’ DNA and I think that suits me. The Scarlets back-line is more or less the Wales back-line – Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies… I’m looking forward to playing with all of them to see where I am as a player and what I can learn.

Selector: Wayne Pivac has named Johnny Williams in his autumn squad (Getty Images)

My dad was born in Rhyl, North Wales, so I’m Welsh-qualified. He had a debenture at the Millennium Stadium so growing up I remember watching Wales play big games there – Wales-England, Grand Slams, All Blacks… I’ve played rugby in England and was brought up in England, but I’ve also seen my dad so passionate about Welsh rugby. Hopefully the opportunity to play at international level comes along. But I’m not taking anything for granted.

I’ve got a property development project in Reading that my mum is helping me with. It’s a really rundown house that needs a lot of work, so it’s a big job and my mum is project managing it. That takes up a lot of my time away from rugby and I also want to do a course in wealth management.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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