Williams enjoyed a memorable ride when runner-up on the nine-year-old 12 months ago and the jockey believes even a pull in the weights may not be enough for his mount to turn the tables.
“We are 12lb better off with Hedgehunter but I don’t think another stone would have stopped him winning last time,” said Williams.
“I know he has a lot of weight but you have to give him the greatest respect and if you’re looking for the best handicapped runner then Clan Royal has to win it.
“Royal Auclair finished ninth in the Gold Cup but for me it was as good a run as when he was fourth the previous year.
“My plan on Saturday will be to keep him nice and wide and hack round on the outer and once we’ve jumped the first three we should be able to get into a nice rhythm.
“I rode him in a piece of work this morning and he seems to be in great form.”
Joe Tizzard is more excited than for any of his eight previous attempts to win the National as he believes Nicholls’ classy Cornish Rebel will go close if taking to the big fences.
The nine-year-old was travelling well when a bad mistake at the third-last put paid to his chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the blinkers he wore that day have been dispensed with.
Tizzard said: “This is definitely the best horse I’ve ridden in the race and with Cornish Rebel I’d be hoping he would start to enjoy himself after he’s jumped the first three.
“I schooled him this morning without the blinkers and he’s definitely concentrating more. We’d been thinking about taking him away for a school but he seems as happy as ever and he’s the type of horse who will either love it or hate it.
“If he enjoys himself there’s no reason why he won’t be in the first three as he has a touch of class and his stamina is assured.”
The least experienced of the seven Nicholls’ riders is 20-year-old Liam Heard, who partners Le Roi Miguel.
“I’m not nervous right now but I know I will be on the day,” said Heard.
“Once the tape goes up all the butterflies will go and hopefully it will be just like riding in another race but these are bigger fences and it’s a much bigger test.
“I rode Le Roi Miguel over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival, he seems as well as ever in his homework and fingers crossed he’ll take to the fences.
“I think Royal Auclair is our best chance as he gallops all day and jumps for fun.”
The other Nicholls challengers are Eurotrek (Paddy Brennan), Le Duc (Jamie Moore), Silver Birch (Sam Thomas) and Heros Collonges (JP McNamara).
Hedgehunter’s owner Trevor Hemmings advises punters not to ignore his other runner, Juveigneur. The Nicky Henderson-trained nine-year-old will be ridden by Mick Fitzgerald, who took the world’s greatest race on Rough Quest 10 years ago.
“Mick Fitzgerald has several choices of horses and he has chosen that one,” Hemmings told At The Races. “He’s on a similar weight to Clan Royal and I think he’d be as good as he is. He’s a good each-way horse.”
Juveigneur is available at 33-1 for the Aintree showpiece, in which Hedgehunter is around 5-1 to become the first horse since the legendary Red Rum in 1974 to win the race two years running.
“I spoke to Willie Mullins and he’s in top form. But he is anxious it doesn’t get too heavy because of the top weight,” Hemmings went on.
“He’s a good horse and proved his abilities when running second in the Gold Cup and giving War Of Attrition something to remind him he’s there.”
Edward Mitchell reports his hope Garvivonnian to be in fine form, with the 10-year-old already proven over the unique obstacles, having won the Becher Chase in November. “He just did a small bit of cantering today and we left him out in a field for a bit,” the Limerick farmer told At The Races. “He’s outside for between half-an-hour and an hour every day.”
“Hedgehunter is the best horse in the race and he’ll take all the beating. What beats him will win.”
Despite the professionals’ confidence in Hedgehunter, Mullins’ charge was pushed out to 5-1 from 4-1 with Coral as Clan Royal replaced him as the 9-2 favourite from 5-1.
“All the money this week has been for Clan Royal while Hedgehunter is proving completely friendless in comparison,” explained Simon Clare, Coral spokesman.