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Paul Rees: JPR Williams was not only a revolutionary, but also a fierce adversary and the ultimate rival in his field.
Rugby union Sport

Paul Rees: JPR Williams was not only a revolutionary, but also a fierce adversary and the ultimate rival in his field.

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PR Williams identified as a passionate Corinthian, but he also had a rebellious nature. In his first appearance for Wales against Scotland in 1969, he played a position that was traditionally considered the final line of defense. Full-backs had only scored 15 tries in significant Test matches in 88 years, but as a former British junior tennis champion, Williams altered the game and paved the path for future players like Andy Irvine, Serge Blanco, and John Gallagher.

Williams, who became an orthopaedic surgeon while also playing for London Welsh, scored six tries in his 55 appearances for Wales. Five of those tries were against England, a team he had a perfect record against in 11 matches. He was eligible to represent England due to his mother, Margaret, being born in Rochdale. However, it was never a possibility for a boy from Bridgend to abandon his home country.

During the 1960s, rugby union was primarily focused on defensive tactics. The ball was frequently kicked, with players having the ability to kick it out of bounds from anywhere on the field. However, when Williams began playing for Bridgend, a Welsh club league known as the Floodlit Alliance was introduced. This league prohibited penalty kicks and promoted a more aggressive style of play. Additionally, a new rule influenced by Australia forbade teams from kicking the ball directly out of bounds from beyond their own 22-yard line, encouraging them to maintain possession.

In 1970, at Twickenham, Williams became the third Welsh full-back to score a try, following in the footsteps of Vivian Jenkins in 1934 and Keith Jarrett in 1967. Initially a fly-half, Williams was hesitant to switch to full-back due to his small stature as a child. In fact, he was even called the Mighty Atom on the tennis circuit before experiencing a growth spurt at the age of 16.

At Trelales Primary School, Billy Morgan, who was also a full-back for Bridgend, informed a 10-year-old Williams that he would no longer play fly-half. Williams reacted with disappointment, suggesting that he should just be removed from the team altogether. However, Morgan explained that an attacking full-back was the future position and, as was often the case in Wales during that time, the guidance and influence of a mentor greatly influenced the game.

In retirement, Williams looked back on the great favor he received and acknowledged that his life would have been drastically different without it. He rose to prominence in the 1970s, achieving three grand slam victories with the Welsh team and playing in every successful 1971 and 1974 Lions tour. His imposing stature made him a formidable opponent for anyone approaching him or attempting to tackle him. Kicking high was rarely effective against him, and he further solidified his warrior persona by wearing a headband to keep his long hair out of his eyes and draping his socks around his ankles.

Prior to the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa, he was commonly referred to as John Williams. However, during the tour, his teammate and namesake joined the team as a winger. This resulted in a noteworthy moment during the second Test, as the commentator exclaimed, “And John Williams passes to John Williams, John Williams passes it back and John Williams scores.” As a result, the full-back became known as JPR and the wing as JJ.

JPR Williams scores against England at Twickenham in February 1970

It was impossible to miss JPR’s competitive drive. His uniform was always covered in mud, just like any other forward’s, and he bore the marks of his battles, having endured 11 serious injuries throughout his career, six of which were on his face. The most severe injury occurred in 1978 while he was leading Bridgend against New Zealand in their centenary year. He was stepped on and then scraped while at the bottom of a ruck.

He left the playing field, having lost two pints of blood due to a facial artery injury. He received 30 stitches both inside and outside, with treatment from a nearby dentist and his GP father, Peter. Despite feeling dizzy, his father urged him to continue playing. He finished the game and even attended the post-match dinner, congratulating the opposing team despite blood still dripping down his face. He never received an official apology or saw any consequences for the person who caused his injury.

Williams used to say that he was happy to play during the amateur era because he played for the love of the game rather than for money. If his famous tackle on France’s Jean-François Gourdon happened today, it would likely result in a penalty try and a potential yellow card. Both Wales and France needed to win their 1976 match in order to secure the grand slam title, and France still had to face England afterwards.

In the final moments of the game, Gourdon was racing towards the right corner with Williams in pursuit. Williams, aware that a traditional tackle would not stop Gourdon from scoring, used his shoulder to stop him. The collision was so forceful that it could be heard from across the field, causing the French player and the ball to separate. Despite this, Wales managed to maintain their lead and win the game.

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Although Williams may not have possessed the same level of elegance as his peers like Barry John, Phil Bennett, and Gerald Davies, he certainly had no shortage of talent. In a game against New Zealand in 1973, he showcased his skills by evading Joe Karam for a try while playing for the Barbarians. Additionally, at Twickenham in 1976, he artfully faked out the opposing team by using Gerald Davies as a decoy and scoring himself.

He chose to hold onto the ball instead of kicking it, but during the crucial Lions Test against the All Blacks in 1971, where the team needed a draw to win the series, he took a shot from near the halfway line. The score was tied at 11-11 and he successfully dropped the ball over the bar. This was not his usual tactic, but he had predicted on the way to the game that he would attempt it.

JPR Williams in action for the Lions in Port Elizabeth in 1974

JPR Williams was known for his determination and success in any endeavor he pursued. Along with playing rugby, he also managed to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons while studying at St Mary’s University. After returning to Bridgend, he used the earnings from his autobiography to establish an injury clinic. He took legal action against the Daily Telegraph for falsely claiming that he had turned professional and kept the profits for himself. While he won his initial case, he ultimately lost on appeal.

He was a fierce competitor both on and off the field, and his time representing his country came to a close at Murrayfield, where it had all begun. Despite initially retiring in 1981, he returned for the season but was one of seven players cut from the team following their 15-6 loss, which was famously referred to as the “night of the long knives.”

It was an inglorious end to an illustrious international career, but he bore no rancour and carried on playing in the back row for Tondu – a position he filled for Wales in Australia in 1978 with that No 7 jersey among his most prized possessions – until he was 54. The camaraderie of the sport was the reason he gave up his promising tennis career, and one he could not let go until finally ordered to do so by the body of the ultimate competitor.

Source: theguardian.com