‘My focus since being a kid was making it to the top, and that never changed even through the dark times’: Johnny Williams close to completing remarkable comeback as Scarlets star nears Wales debut just 17 months after testicular cancer diagnosis
- Johnny Williams is close to capping a remarkable journey if he plays for Wales
- The Scarlets centre was diagnosed with testicular cancer just 17 months ago
- The 24-year-old unwittingly played rugby for England with the illness
- Williams has pledged his allegiance to Wales and could feature this autumn
If Johnny Williams plays for Wales this autumn it will complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent years.
It was only 17 months ago that the 24-year-old centre unwittingly played for England with testicular cancer.
Now in remission and eyeing a first cap for the land of his father former London Irish and Newcastle midfielder Williams can open up on the torment of the last year-and-a-half.
Scarletts star Johnny Williams could cap a remarkable journey if he plays for Wales in autumn
Williams had ended the 2018-19 season relegated with Newcastle, but was selected for the June match against the Barbarians at Twickenham.
‘That was before everything happened,’ he tells Sportsmail.
‘I had seen two doctors before, who said there was nothing wrong, no lumps or bumps.
‘Because I had the confidence that nothing was wrong I relaxed and let it go longer than I should have.
‘So going into the BaaBaas game I technically had cancer, which when you put it like that is quite bad.
Last year, the centre unwittingly played for England Under-20s with testicular cancer
‘That was the last game of the season so I went on holiday and we had five weeks off.
‘It got worse and worse, until we did contact training at Falcons and it just ached for about an hour or two and I knew something was wrong. It was double the size too.
‘I didn’t want to go to the doctor, as it’s a bit awkward, but dropped into the club doctor and said “mate can you have a look at this please”.
‘He said “how long has it been like this for?” and I said “about 3 months now”.
‘He was quite shocked, there was a bit of urgency then, which is what I wanted early doors when I knew something was wrong.
‘I didn’t necessarily know it was the worst-case, but knew something was wrong.’
Williams saw his life drastically change and watched the World Cup from a hospital bed
At the time Williams was 22, and saw his life drastically changing before his eyes.
A four-week blast of chemotherapy saw him bed-ridden and bald. He watched the World Cup from hospital, remaining determined.
‘It was pretty scary but I had age on my side,’ he explains.
‘My family supported me and gave me the confidence, and helped mentally too. My focus since being a kid was making it to the top, and that never changed even through the dark times.
‘You realise what’s important in life. Those are tough lessons to learn for a 22-year-old. You don’t wish it on anyone. You know who is important, which is friends and family. You have a good perspective when times are tough like they are at the minute.
‘They’re tough lessons but you’ve got to take the positives and be grateful.’
Williams has overcome the illness and since switched his allegiance from England to Wales
To whizz back to the present and see Williams beaming back via the Zoom call, with a full head of hair again, wearing his Welsh training kit is a heart-warming sight.
Every four months he has blood tests and scans to check the cancer is at bay, but can now focus on becoming a Test player.
Having grown up in Reading Williams speaks with a fairly regulation Thames Valley English accent – but the clues to his Welsh heritage lie in his name.
His Welsh-speaking Rhyl-born dad Gareth called him Johnny Bleddyn Rhys Williams – so in camp now he is ‘Bledd’ – making sure there was not any doubt.
Gareth would take his son to the Millennium Stadium for Tests, as he had a debenture ticket.
‘Growing up I had a massive attachment to Welsh rugby,’ says Williams.
‘I was at the 2013 game where Wales beat England 30-3, and have been to loads of All Blacks games.
‘I remember Gavin Henson hitting the post against the All Blacks in 2004.
The 24-year-old is known as ‘Bledd’ among his new team-mates with the Wales national squad
‘Most recently I went to the Ireland Grand Slam win in 2019 – so to go from being a fan to now in the squad is cool.’
So his father found it a little tricky when Johnny went from Redingensians all the way through to winning the junior World Cup with England at Under-20s level.
‘He always said he hoped I played well, but if it ever came to playing Wales he hoped I scored a hat-trick but England lost!’ laughs Williams who could come up against members of that England team – Joe Marchant, Max Malins, Ollie Thorley and Jack Singleton – for the senior team in the Autumn Nations Cup.
It was before that Barbarians match that Wayne Pivac had a word, floating the possibility of Williams venturing west.
After his cancer treatment and recovery he did, joining the Scarlets who had an opening after the departure of Hadleigh Parkes.
Williams might prove highly useful with his carrying and offloading skills, as Wales look to rejuvenate a squad in a rut. He never thought it would happen so quickly.
‘It is just amazing,’ he smiles.
Now Williams is looking to seize his opportunity if handed to him by coach Wayne Pivac
‘Now I’m here, I’m head down, trying to get an opportunity and when I get it, I’ll take it.’
On his top lip for this month is a moustache he will wear with pride – it is a sign of his support for men’s health charity Movember, and a symbol of the extraordinary journey he has been on.
‘I don’t really like something so personal being out there,’ he says of his initial uneasiness to tell his tale.
‘But I thought it was better to quite open about it. Even if I happen to save a life, it doesn’t have to even be testicular cancer I think it’s quite important to be open and raise awareness.
‘I’ve only just turned 24 and hopefully have a long career ahead of me. The lessons I’ve learned are only going to put me in good stead.’
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