Bad Luck Tennis
John Peter Rhys Williams is one of the most talented rugby players the world has ever seen – and not just on the rugby field.
J.P.R. Williams, as he is better known, was a highly promising tennis player when he was a youth and managed to win the Wimbledon Junior Championship in 1966 (although some people believe he actually won the All England Lawn Tennis Junior competition). On top of this, he is also a fully qualified orthopaedic surgeon.
In fact, it was his decision to study medicine that led him on to the rugby field. Having given up tennis, he took up the then amateur sport of rugby union. The loss for tennis definitely worked out in favour for rugby.
Started With a Win
Williams combined his studies with playing rugby but he soon caught the eye of the national team and in 1969, on his 20th birthday, he made his debut against Scotland. As he strode out on to the field, sideburns covering most of his face, socks hanging loosely round his ankles, JPR looked anything but professional, but after the 17-3 victory, he strode off the pitch as a man who would put fear into the hearts of his opponents.
Later that year, JPR was part of the Welsh team that won the Triple Crown and was only denied the Grand Slam by a fiercely contested 8-8 draw against France. He was fast becoming a vital cog in the Welsh engine and was proving to be a reliable and often explosive full back.
With Wales looking to be unstoppable at times, JPR was surrounded by players of real class, and during another Five Nations win (again missing out on the Grand Slam), he scored against England with a superb mazy run. JPR had announced himself to the world in style.
England would go on to be his lucky team. He played against them ten times in his career and he did not lose a single game, playing like a man possessed in each and every one.
First Grand Slam
The following season, Wales finally won the Grand Slam, in a year that allowed JPR to show the world how skilful he was. During the Five Nations win, he intercepted a pass in the game against France and ran 70 yards, before offloading to Gareth Edwards.
Later in the year, he was drafted into the British Lions team to tour New Zealand. The series ended with the Lions winning 2-1. This was the first time that they had ever beaten New Zealand and JPR played his part, by scoring a drop goal in the fourth test from a considerable distance. The game ended as a draw and the Lions won the series.
This situation perfectly encapsulated what JPR was all about: “Cometh the hour…Cometh the man”. He played like a man with no pressure on him and it showed in his free flowing, attacking rugby.
Aggressive and Attacking
In 1973, JPR pulled on the black and white striped jersey of the Barbarians to face New Zealand. What followed was one of the greatest tries ever scored in rugby union. The Barbarians had been passing it around the All Blacks and Fergus Slattery had made a break. The ball was offloaded to JPR who sold a dummy to New Zealand full back, Joe Karam, and rounded off the move by touching down.
Although JPR was struggling with Wales, in the Lions tour of South Africa, he made a name for himself in the 3-0 series win. He came under heavy criticism from the South African press for his aggressive style of defending but his team mates and coaches backed JPR as one of the best full backs in world rugby.
Wales got back to winning ways in 1975 by collecting the Five Nations trophy and they won the Grand Slam the following year, in a tournament where they looked completely unstoppable.
In the game against England, JPR was in sensational form, as he scored two tries in the game. What makes this feat even more memorable, is the fact that he had picked up a dangerous facial injury and had to have several stitches halfway through the game. This was a man who was so committed to the Welsh cause that he would stay to fight it out until his dying breath.
It was in this tournament that JPR had one his most outstanding moments. In a tight game against France, Jean Francois Gourdon – the French winger – had got past the Welsh line and was bursting towards the try line. JPR had covered the width of the pitch to get to him and performed a rugged shoulder tackle on the Frenchmen and Wales went on to win the game. Gourdon still can’t work out where he had come from.
The tackle was the defining moment that made sure he was awarded the Rothmans Player of the Year award for the 76/77 season. JPR was rewarded with the Welsh captain’s armband for the 1978 and the 1979 Five Nations trophy. The honour of captaining his county inspired JPR to lead his team to Grand Slam glory in the ’78 season.
The End of a Career
After winning the Grand Slam, JPR travelled with Wales on a tour of Australia which they lost 2-0. The team was marred by injuries throughout the tour, which left the Wales coach no alternative other than playing JPR at flanker. He carried out the task with aplomb but was unable to affect the result.
Later in the year, he played against the All Blacks for Wales and Bridgend, his club team, in a game that was remembered for all the wrong reasons. Whilst JPR was at the base of a ruck, he was badly raked – where a player drags their studs across an opponent’s body – by an All Black forward. Although he suffered no serious injuries, the game involving Wales was also marred by poor gamesmanship by the All Blacks and was played in an aggressive manner.
During the success of 1979, JPR made his 50th appearance in a Wales shirt but he retired the following year so that he could put all his efforts into his medical studies. He did, however, make a return to face New Zealand, in a match to celebrate the Centenary of the Welsh RFU. When he ran out on to the pitch, the stadium erupted into fever pitch at the return of their hero. Although Wales lost heavily, JPR still considers this to be his crowing moment.
The following year, he played in the Five Nations for the final time. The 15-6 defeat was to be the last time he would wear the red jersey. It was fitting that the last team he faced was the first team he played against for Wales.
JPR is now a consultant at the Prince of Wales Hospital in his home town of Bridgend. He still plays rugby, albeit at a lower level than in his heyday, as he turns out for Tondu Thirds. During his career, he won eight Five Nations trophies, six Triple Crowns and three Grand Slams.
Although his scoring record wasn’t that impressive – 36 points in 55 appearances – JPR will be remembered as one of the greatest Welsh players to play rugby. He will forever be known as a player who never shirked his responsibility, who stood up to be counted and a man who gave 100% in every single game he played, for both club and country.