In 2018, Tom Williams was left without a contract when the Scarlets released him a year after he’d helped them win the Guinness PRO12.
Cardiff picked him up but after limited opportunities, he jumped at the opportunity to move the Jersey Reds in the English championship. His first season at the club was decimated by a shoulder injury and then the Covid-19 pandemic. But his second term saw the outside back scoring tries freely and bagging hat-tricks.
The reason his form was so impressive, he feels, is because he knew that season was going to be his last as a player. His transition into coaching had already begun as he was taking charge of the Jersey Reds Women’s team at the time. But soon he’d be joining Men’s Director of Rugby Harvey Biljon’s coaching staff.
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Williams told WalesOnline: “I’d heard a lot about Jersey. It’s a little island with amazing beaches. I thought it would be an amazing chance to travel and get to another club, a different league, different coaches and, I was right, it has been unbelievable.
“In my second year, I knew I was transitioning towards finishing my career so I just really enjoyed my last season as a player.
“I loved pre-season and I started playing the best rugby I’ve ever played. I scored quite a few tries and played some good rugby.
“I knew in the back of my mind that I was finishing something I’d wanted to do since I was born so I was giving it my all.”
As he began to ponder life after playing, opportunity came knocking. Reds assistant coach Ed Robinson got a job with Premiership side Wasps and Williams was called to step in.
He was helping out at his girlfriend’s cafe with offers of coaching roles elsewhere on the table when Biljon called him into his office the day before pre-season started and offered him the role of attack coach for the coming season.
“I played for two years in Jersey and I loved it out here. But for those two years I always had something in the back of my mind about wanting to go into coaching,” says Williams.
“It wasn’t something I’d always been thinking about during my time in Wales but I just got really into out here. I took charge of Jersey Reds Women, which I loved.
“I’ve always had a really good relationship with Harvey. I’d always go into the office and ask questions about how he did certain things when I was coaching the women’s team.
“So he knew I was obsessed with coaching. He called me in, we had a chat and he asked: ‘Can you start tomorrow?’
“This was a completely different challenge. It’s a professional environment, a massive challenge but I took it on.”
Williams sounded out his father, former Wales and Lions scrum-half Brynmor, and brother, Wales and Cardiff No.9 Lloyd and neither were surprised by the move.
“They said they always knew I was going to become a coach because I’m a bit of a nause,” laughed Tom.
Nause or not, his first season in the role could not have gone much better. Jersey scored 596 points in the Championship this season, helping them to their highest ever finish of fourth in the league.
The only team to score more points than them were the league’s runaway leaders Ealing.
“I have to mention Rob Webber [head coach] and Harvey because they helped me a lot starting off. I’ve had a great bunch of players to work with as well,” he insists.
“When I started, Rob took me under his wing and helped me along. Then in the second half of the season I took over on more of a full-time basis.
“I always went back to Rob, the players, my brother or my dad for advice. So it wasn’t just me and we scored a lot of set piece and maul tries!
“We did score a lot of good tries in attack as well, which is obviously pleasing, but I’ve got loads to learn.”
Williams is now doing his coaching badges in the RFU system and has had the opportunity to learn from the likes of Leicester boss Steve Borthwick, Sale Sharks head coach Alex Sanderson and England’s Eddie Jones.
“In terms of being a young coach trying to get better, it’s been phenomenal for me,” he says.
Having friends still in the playing squad has also benefited Williams on what has been a steep learning curve as he has been able to sound them out about the tone, content and length of his presentations to the group.
His coaching philosophy is not rigid: “That can only come when you know what players you’ve got to work with. So that can vary.” But one thing he is big on is team culture, which is something that has really been driven home to him since he moved to the English system, having spent the majority of his playing career in Wales.
“Something I was new to, coming to the English setup, is that we actually train culture,” he explained. “We have an hour a week where we’ll be together in a meeting room.
“We’ll have a bit of a Q&A and it might be a story where a player comes from a difficult beginning but they’ve adapted and persevered to get to where they are now. But it can also be things like just going down to the beach and doing a walk-through, or grabbing a coffee together.
“In that time, you might have 100 conversations and that brings you closer as a group. That’s something I find has made a massive difference, just training that culture. It’s something that gets thrown around quite a lot but if you don’t work on it, then it’s not going to get better.”
Williams lists current Wales assistant Stephen Jones among the coaches he takes inspiration from – along with Quins attack guru Nick Evans and La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara. Williams worked with Jones during their time together at the Scarlets.
“It’s just the relationship he had with every player,” he says. “He really encouraged me to get the ball in my hands as much as possible during the game.
“When I coach now, I look at my back three players and see how they can get entry points because they’re the most dangerous players in the game. Different ways of getting my hands on the ball really invigorated me when I joined the Scarlets. Steve brought another side out in me and I played quite a bit in that first year.
“Ultimately, the relationship I had with him made me want to play well for him.”