During the final moments of the Five Nations match between Wales and France in March 1976 at Cardiff Arms Park, the Welsh team was defending against a strong attack from the French visitors. However, in a moment of opportunity, French wing Jean-François Gourdon managed to break through on the touchline by the north stand. Just as Gourdon was about to make a move, he was met with a powerful shoulder charge from Wales’s full-back, JPR Williams, causing him to nearly be thrown into the crowd. Williams raised his fist in celebration as Wales successfully held off France and claimed a 19-13 victory, securing their seventh grand slam.
Williams’ tackle may not have been within the rules, but it left a lasting impression on Welsh rugby fans. Another unforgettable moment was captured in a photo of the Bridgend No 15, bloodied and bruised from being trampled by an opposing All Blacks player. The sport of international rugby in the 1970s was not for the faint-hearted, and JPR’s survival was a testament to his exceptional skill and unbreakable toughness.
The late Williams, who passed away at 74 due to bacterial meningitis, will always be remembered as JPR – the most powerful initials in the world of sports. He was only rivaled by France’s Serge Blanco as the greatest full-back in history. In 1968, when the international board prohibited direct kicking into touch, it opened up opportunities for Williams and other players like Scotland’s Andy Irvine to establish a model for the playing style of a modern attacking full-back.
Williams’s well-known toughness comes from an unexpected source. Unlike many other top players in Wales, he grew up in a privileged middle-class household. Williams shared a story of arriving at a Wales Schoolboys’ trial in a luxurious Rolls Royce. He explained that his upbringing motivated him to show his peers that he was strong and just like them.
John Peter Rhys was born to doctors Peter and Margaret in Bridgend. Margaret was originally from Rochdale, giving young John the potential to play for England. However, this was not a topic often discussed in the Williams family.
Instead of playing on the muddy fields of Cardiff Arms Park or Bridgend, Williams gained recognition as a skilled athlete on the lawns of Wimbledon. At the age of 17, he achieved his first major victory by winning the 1966 British junior tennis title at Wimbledon, defeating David Lloyd in the final match.
He was becoming well-known for his skills in rugby while living in Bridgend, where his father held the positions of club president and doctor. During this period, Williams had already transferred from Bridgend grammar school to Millfield school in Somerset, where fellow Welsh scrum-half Gareth Edwards was also a student.
Williams left Millfield and moved to St Mary’s hospital in London, where he also spent some time at the London Welsh club. Despite having a passion for tennis, he decided to pursue amateur sports and focus on his medical education, as his father had warned him that he would not be able to sustain a career as a professional athlete.
As a teenager, he was summoned to join the Wales team for their tour of Argentina in the summer of 1968. There was much anticipation surrounding the young player, John Williams, when he played his first full match for Wales against Scotland at Murrayfield in February of the following year.
Clive Rowlands, Wales’s previous captain, became their new coach. In their 17-3 victory, Barry John, playing fly-half, scored the final try. There was a sense of excitement in Wales during the 1970s, which is often referred to as their golden age. With Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards leading the team, Barry John’s successor was established. Along with JPR and wings JJ Williams and Gerald Davies, Wales became a dominant force in northern hemisphere rugby. JPR, known for his Elvis-inspired sideburns, long hair, and frequently pulled down socks, was at the core of their team.
His attacking skills and strong defense made him a key member of the Wales team from his debut in 1969 until his retirement from international rugby in 1981. He further enhanced his reputation during successful tours with the British Lions to New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974, playing in all four Tests on each tour. Williams had previously been on a Wales tour to New Zealand in 1969 where they suffered two defeats against the All Blacks, making the Lions’ 2-1 series win two years later a significant achievement.
In the last Test match, he secured the series for his team with a drop-goal from a far distance in Auckland. This caught his teammates off guard, but according to England’s Bob Hiller, who was his backup full-back during the tour, he had playfully teased him about not being a true international until he successfully scored a drop-goal.
Three years after, Williams showed his heroic side once again in South Africa as Willie John McBride’s team emerged victorious in a series against the Springboks that was marked by frequent brutality. The Lions’ rallying cry of “99” often led to intense physical altercations, and one particular moment that stood out was when Williams charged towards the much larger South African lock Moaner van Heerden. However, Williams later admitted that this was not something he was proud of.
Williams earned 55 appearances for Wales, with five of those as captain during the 1978-79 season. He was awarded an MBE in 1977. In addition to his successes with the Lions, he also contributed to the Barbarians’ memorable win against the All Blacks at the Arms Park in 1973. After retiring from international play, Williams continued to compete for Tondu as a back-rower until the age of 54 in 2003.
In 1973, he married Scilla Parkin, whom he met at medical school. He worked as a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon at Princess of Wales hospital in Bridgend from 1986 to 2004. While many retired players became pundits, Williams did not often join them, but he enjoyed discussing his impressive career, particularly his 11 victories over England.
Scilla and their children, Lauren, Annie, Fran, and Peter, are the survivors.