JJ Williams

Obituary: Peter Jackson on the life of JJ Williams

PETER JACKSON pays tribute to JJ Williams who died on Thursday at the age of 72. An all-time great, record-breaking try scorer during the only invincible Lions tour, double Grand Slammer, national sprint champion, millionaire businessman and outspoken pundit, he was also a fearless critic of ‘The Blazer Brigade’ who ran the amateur game.

Early one morning during the first week of the school term in September 1974, a very large man pulled up outside JJ Williams’ modest home in an even larger car.

“It was the biggest Mercedes I’d ever seen,” said the most coveted of wings, a trifle bewildered at further evidence of how the Lions tour that summer really had changed his life, from humble PE teacher into embryonic global superstar. “Nobody in Maesteg had ever seen one as big.”

Vince Karalius, so tough an hombre that the Aussies called him ‘The Wild Bull of the Pampasafter he had out-slugged them at their own game of Going the Biff, had driven from Merseyside to the old mining town in the Llynfi Valley on behalf of Widnes Rugby League club.

When the startled object of his outrageous smash-and-grab mission explained that he could not afford to be late for school, the formidable Karalius reached into the breast pocket of his suit for something equally as formidable.

“He opened his cheque book and wrote a cheque in my name for £13,500. My wife Jane and I had bought a house for £4,500 and here was this famous man offering to pay me the equivalent of three houses. I said: “No, thankyou Mr Karalius. I can’t be late.’

“The big Merc was still there when I got back from school that afternoon. By then Mr Karalius has increased the offer by another £3,000. I still didn’t sign but when the story got out, I said I was considering it. I was asked a question and I gave an honest answer.

“An offer which would have equalled the world record for a Union player? Anyone would have considered that. I had been warned that the WRU would take a dim view of it.

“My reaction was: ‘So, what are they going to do? Ban me? The next day I went before the television cameras and said that I had decided to stay with Llanelli.”

The following day he drove to Stradey Park for the Scarlets’ match against Swansea. The club’s honorary secretary, the late Ken Jones, had been instructed to tell the star left wing that he had been found guilty of a treasonable offence. Tried by the noble men of the Welsh Rugby Union in absentia. An open-and-shut case.

“I always saw Ken before home matches to collect a couple of tickets but on this occasion, he said: ‘Sorry, JJ but you can’t play. Bill Clement (WRU secretary) says you have professionalised yourself and we have to follow the rules.

“What do you mean?

“Because you considered going to Rugby League.

“But I’m not going to Rugby League.”

JJ had good reason for being unable to contain his anger. The Mid-Glamorgan County Council’s refusal to grant him paid leave to tour apartheid South Africa that summer left he and Jane without the means to pay the mortgage.

“I thought of all the sacrifices I’d made just for the honour of playing the game. I’d gone six months without pay to go on the Lions tour. I’d been short-changed by the jealous small-minded men on the Union committee and now I’d just been told that I’d been kicked out of the game.

“For what? For being honest enough to say I had considered a world record offer from a Rugby League club.”

Had he chosen to drive a hard bargain, JJ could probably have pushed the price to an unprecedented £20,000, the sort of money Charles Piutau earns in a week now from Bristol but unheard of riches almost half a century ago. Only one player in the history of the game had scored four tries in a Lions’ Test series.

After a weekend stewing in anger at the master-slave nature of his treatment, Williams reported for training on the Monday night at Llanelli ready to fight the Union all the way. Maybe they knew he wouldn’t be pushed around any more or, more likely, they sensed that a lifetime ban would expose them to public ridicule.

“I was welcomed back by everyone at Stradey that night with open arms,” he said. “And the subject was never mentioned again. It was as though it had never happened.”

No matter how many Test matches he won as a permanent member of the Wales team of the Seventies, surely the most celebrated of the amateur era, JJ always strived for more. That insatiable desire for endless improvement may have had its roots in his very early days.

He never forgot a final Welsh schools trial when John Williams pulled into the car park of Blaina Rugby Club in his father’s humble Ford Prefect. A Rolls Royce drew up alongside them ferrying another John Williams.

“A few boys jumped out of the back of the Rolls including the boy who was to play behind me at full back,” said JJ. “We’d never seen him play because he was at Millfield School. And that was the first time I met JPR.”

From that day on, each would be known by his initials, as instantly recognisable as WG (Grace) or CB (Fry) had been in their time. What made JJ a man apart from the rest was that, far from being paid a penny for changing the course of South African history on and off the field, he effectively put himself out of a job to make the trip.

The Labour-controlled Mid-Glamorgan County Council refused to grant him paid leave of absence for a tour which Harold Wilson’s government urged the Four Home Unions to cancel as a protest against apartheid. They instructed British Embassies throughout Africa to give the Lions the coldest of shoulders.

The only ‘bonus’ JJ received came in a suitably brown envelope posted by ANC political prisoners on Robben Island, two one Rand notes as a token of their gratitude for beating the Springboks, the supposedly unbeatable symbol of white supremacy.

Back home, a glossy broadsheet Saturday magazine featured JJ on the cover. “They had me running through a flock of sheep at Nantyffyllon Rugby Club above the Llynfi valley,” he said. “Alongside was a picture of Johann Cruyff. In that same summer he’d been the star Dutch soccer player at the World Cup.

“They made the point that one footballer was a multi-millionaire and the other had lost thousand of pounds on the all-conquering Lions tour. Shortly after that Trevor Francis became the first footballer to be transferred for a million pounds.

“Gareth (Edwards), Phil (Bennett) and myself were driving somewhere and Gareth said: ‘I wonder what we’d all be worth if there was a transfer market in rugby.’ We laughed about it.”

He never forgave the WRU their penny-pinching and would cite the most notorious example, in the hotel dining room before a Five Nations’ match at Twickenham. JJ had claimed £5 for the previous week’s expenses, based on two round-trips from Cardiff to Maesteg.

He told the story of how during a light lunch of toast and honey, the chairman of selectors tapped him on the shoulder to say that that they’d paid him too much, that they worked the expenses out at £3.80 and that he therefore owed them £1.20.

“There was a massive amount of jealousy towards us from the blazer brigade.”

That may well have been the 1974 match against England when JJ claimed a late try which would probably have turned a rare home win into another Welsh Five Nations title. He never forgot the injustice of John West’s denial on the basis of the Dublin official being unsighted, a ruling which inspired Max Boyce’s hit about Blind Irish Referees.

Having retired with a career record of 352 tries from 438 matches, Williams became a pundit, decidedly more Roy Keane than Bill Beaumont. He found time for everything and everyone before the brain cancer diagnosed 13 months ago exacted its cruel toll.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, and children Kathryn, James and Rhys, all of whom made their mark as international athletes in their own right.

Leave a Comment