Exeter’s Harry Williams: ‘The idea of international rugby is forming a bit more’
In Exeter they do not mind what their rugby players look like. “We’re not big ones for the colour of a player’s boots or hairstyles or tattoos,” confirms Rob Baxter, the Chiefs director of rugby, glancing over at his distinctively pony-tailed, 20-stone prop Harry Williams. “We’re happy for them to be their own men as long as they buy into what we want to achieve as a club. He can wear white boots and have whatever hairstyle he wants as long as he trains well and plays well.”
A sense of stylistic freedom has clearly done Jack Nowell no harm from a Lions perspective and, following his call-up to the senior England squad for this summer’s tour to Argentina, the idiosyncratic Williams is the latest example. While Eddie Jones is not an instant fan of his new tight-head’s barnet – “He needs a haircut so I will have to chat to him about that” – he will soon discover there is a heap more to the 25-year-old than meets the eye. Taking the clippers to Samson’s locks did not end well and it might work best to keep England’s new giant-sized recruit away from the barbers.
Because the powerful Williams is a rare breed: a big man who does not conform to people’s stereotypical views of prop forwards. He is uncommonly sharp-witted, naturally droll and possesses an eclectic range of interests, from baking to electronic music and beyond. His younger sister, Matilida, has represented Great Britain at water polo and he has a degree in English and Sports Science from Loughborough university. Does that mean he reads Shakespeare in the gym? “No, but we did have a handball module. I was goalie and top goalscorer. I honestly believe handball is one of the most enjoyable sports you can play.”
Interviewing Williams is to enter a world as full of sudden twists and diversions as his career thus far. The son of a bricklayer and a landscape gardener from Lancashire and Lincolnshire respectively, he grew up around Crystal Palace, played youth rugby for Old Elthamians and went to school in Croydon with England squad members Elliot Daly and Marland Yarde. All three, along with Harlequins’ George Merrick, played together in the Whitgift side that won the Under-18 Schools Cup at Twickenham and his parents Nick and Sue still live in south London: “I don’t hear the end of it when they come down here and back in a day. It’s as if my mum’s been to Belgium.”
As it happens, Old Elthamians has already produced one massive England prop, the similarly dry-humoured Andrew Sheridan. History may now be about to repeat itself. The 6ft 3in tall Williams was once in the Wasps academy but has not always been the scrummaging colossus he is now. “I was definitely a late developer. I wasn’t particularly big or particularly good when I was young. I didn’t get big until I was almost 20 and started training at Loughborough. It was all laid on for us and I enjoyed it. When I finished school I was probably 110kg. Now I’m 130kg. When you get older you thicken out a bit, don’t you?”
Prior to his stints with Loughborough Students, Nottingham and Jersey, he also spent seven months living and playing in North Auckland where he lived above a gym and had a job cleaning a bakery. He insists, however, this was not what attracted him to the Great British Bake-Off which, somewhat bizarrely, led to him becoming a popular figure on social media last year for his tart tweets about Candice’s showstoppers. As an unashamed fan he is putting a brave face on the show’s move to Channel 4: “It’s like when Jif changed to Cif. Everyone was outraged but I think change is good.”
Moving to Devon – he lives in the village of Aylesbeare with team-mates Sam Hill, Alec Hepburn and Stu Townsend – has certainly worked out so far. He had never visited the west country before Baxter, always fishing for motivated Championship talent, phoned to invite him down to Sandy Park. Within three months of his first league start he was playing in a Premiership final; now, with Dan Cole and Kyle Sinckler on Lions duty, he has every chance of an England cap. “If an English-qualified player comes to a club that finishes in the top four, is playing Champions’ Cup rugby and plays in a Premiership final he’s probably going to be pretty good,” stresses Baxter. “The nicest thing from my perspective is that he’s worked extremely hard. From day one coming in from Jersey he’s done a lot of extras. He’s not just someone who rocks up at training, runs around a bit with the lads and then goes out and plays. He’s very diligent and passionate about what he’s doing. I’m much happier when players like Harry get recognition because I know how hard they’ve worked.”
The Chiefs’ penultimate league fixture against Northampton will also offer a chance to impress off the bench against Saints’ tight-head Paul Hill, his main rival for a starting cap against the Pumas in June, and captain Dylan Hartley. The England scrum coach Neal Hatley will be present and, beneath the quirky humour, Williams is ambitious enough to feel he could cope at Test level. “I do believe that. It’s the law of attraction: you have to believe in something for it to happen. When I was playing in the Champo I always believed I could play in the Prem. Now I’m here the idea of international rugby is forming a bit more. I’m thinking: ‘Why not?’” He also yearns to travel one day but will be heading to South America this summer strictly on business. “I don’t reckon they’d be much into me backpacking or staying in Amazonian villages. I’m looking forward to the intensity of an England camp. Loads of people never get that opportunity. I really want to go and have a good crack at it.”
First and foremost, though, Exeter have a Premiership semi-final home draw to earn. Having been losing finalists last year, there is tangible sense of purpose. “I think there is a different mood,” confirms Williams. “Last year we were very excited; there was a little bit of shock and awe. I don’t think we’re the bookies’ favourites but who cares. Everyone in the camp believes we can do it.” Win or lose, the volume of hair poking out from beneath his headguard will be irrelevant.