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Ulster star Nick says cheers to 'last chance saloon'

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Nick Williams on the charge for Ulster

Nick Williams on the charge for Ulster

INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

Nick Williams on the charge for Ulster

It's been a rather tortuous journey towards finding redemption. Nick Williams delivers one of those languid smiles and in softly spoken tones – the complete contrast to the wrecking-ball presence he has brought to his work this season – tries to bring substance to how he has turned his career around in just one campaign to bring the 29-year-old to the verge of making the RaboDirect PRO12 final if the Scarlets are seen off in tomorrow night's Ravenhill semi-final.

The baseball cap sits reversed on his head and he is in good form and is as willing to talk as he is intent on larking around with his team-mates.

"I'm looking forward to the game on Friday night, but at the moment I'm just enjoying the sun," is the Ulster number eight's take on the day that's in it before an even bigger smile accompanies his next observation.

"As long as I see a blue sky I know I'm still on Earth."

It's all been quite a story. After notably indifferent spells on the books at both Munster – who he was with for two years after coming on board in 2008 – and Aironi, Williams was brought to Ulster with his stock being pretty close to rock bottom.

Now, less than a year later, that backdrop has been utterly altered and he finds himself being lauded by his peers with Sunday's RaboDirect PRO12 Players' Player of the Year gong coming the Auckland native's way while last night he made a double after also being up for the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association (IRUPA) Players' Player of the Year.

"I'm just really humbled by it, humbled and grateful," is his take on all the awards stuff.

You get the impression, though, that when it comes to doing these ceremonies, and hitting the road to Dublin twice in one week while leaving his pregnant fiancee – who is due to give birth in July – and daughter behind, he could probably take it or leave it.

For him, what has happened on the pitch is of much more significance and, as he explains, it has also been no easy task to arrive somewhere new, especially with his career baggage, and just rapidly turn it all around to become a huge favourite at Ravenhill.

"Obviously I knew the stick I was getting when people heard I was going to sign for Ulster and that was fair enough after the seasons I had down south and in Italy," he added.

"It was a huge challenge and I've just plugged away.

"I've done a lot of work off the field to try and get my body right and to utilise it come game time." There's no escaping the fact that Ulster were pretty much the last chance saloon for the former Junior All Black to make a positive impression and he also knew he just couldn't afford to let down Mark Anscombe – his former coach from back home and the man who was instrumental in getting him snapped up after Aironi folded last season – or put in more underachieving efforts around his new team-mates.

"I came here and I changed my mentality towards how I approached the game of rugby," he says before going off on an unexpected tangent.

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"It was the fun factor, I took it too seriously sometimes when I was playing down south and over in Italy and it was just not working for me.

"What I really wanted to do was play and just enjoy it.

"It's not a long career and it has to be enjoyed while it's here and that's the one thing that's different in my game," says the man who can claim the maverick Sonny Bill Williams as his cousin.

He can't close the subject matter without paying tribute to his team-mates, who have fully embraced him as a key member of the squad, and, of course, his Ulster coach Anscombe.

"Me and Cowboy (Anscombe), we have a history together back in New Zealand and he knew what I was capable of," he said.

"He's a coach I respect a lot and he can get it out of me and it's worked here."

No argument there as Williams's seven tries – though he has not scored since suffering a knee injury in January which kept him out for two months which interestingly happened to coincide with most of Ulster's PRO12 slump – attest to a player who opponents have, at times, simply found close to unstoppable.

And along with crossing the line himself, his unorthodox one-handed ball-carrying, with accompanying off-loads, have also helped create other scores for those around him as well as, occasionally, gifting ball to the opposition. If Williams can finish the season on a high and continue his form into the next campaign, then his strong Christian faith has to also be attributed to assisting his turnaround in fortune.

He kneels in prayer on the pitch before each game though he admits to previously straying and suffering the consequences.

"At the beginning of my career I kind of went away from the Church and I let it all go to my head a little bit," added Williams.

"But I know things must be done in moderation and that's how I now live my life nowadays.

"You've got to have fun, but it's all got to be balanced."

So far, Williams is certainly making up for all that lost time.


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