Bleddyn Williams: 'The Prince of Centres' who remains the last captain to lead Wales to victory over the All Blacks

Bleddyn Williams, the Welsh rugby player known and respected worldwide as the "Prince of Centres" and the last Welshman to captain his country to victory over New Zealand, died in Cardiff on Monday at the age of 86. Williams, a magnificent passer of the ball and blessed with the definitive Welsh sidestep, led Wales to a 13-8 win over Bob Stuart's 1953 touring All Blacks three weeks after captaining his club, Cardiff, to an 8-3 victory over the New Zealanders.

Born in Taffs Well on 22 February, 1923, Bleddyn Llewellyn Williams was one of eight brothers and four sisters, and had his sporting skills honed at Rydal School in north Wales before going on to score 185 tries in 283 appearances for Cardiff.

He scored seven tries in 22 Welsh appearances between 1947 and 1955, and on the five occasions he captained Wales there were five victories. A 1950 British and Irish Lions tourist to Australasia, he captained the Lions in three of the five Tests in which he played. He retired in 1955 at the age of 32 and became an authorative commentator on the game. He died at Holme Tower medical centre in Cardiff days after another Lions tour has been completed.

"I count my blessings that I played the game when I did, when you played rugby for the love of the game and the immense pride of representing your club and country," Williams said. "That was reward enough for us but now chasing the dollar, pound or euro seems to be king and the game is the poorer for it. The game is a commercial venture that has had its soul ripped out. And – in complete contrast to today's situation with a team of highly paid coaches – in 1950 we didn't even have a single coach. Karl Mullen, the Lions tour captain, looked after the forwards and I looked after the backs. The 32-match tour lasted for six and a half months, including five weeks on the boat each way, going out through the Panama Canal and back through the Suez and as Ken Jones and John Robins were both PE teachers they kept us going in keeping fit."

Williams played in 20 of the Lions' 29 matches and scored 12 tries, including one in the first-Test win over Australia in Brisbane, and rugby was never far away where Williams was concerned, even during the height of the Second World War. He joined the RAF as a 20-year-old and, after training near Phoenix in Arizona, rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, flying gliders in behind enemy lines.

"I had been selected to play for Great Britain against the Dominions at Leicester," he recalled. "The weekend before that I did a glider drop over the Rhine and on the Friday I was still in Germany, having spent six nights sleeping in a slit trench with only an American parachute for cover. On that Friday the major in charge, Hugh Bartlett – who captained the Sussex cricket team – asked me if I was playing the next day and when I said I had a fat chance of that he said, 'Pack your bags because you are off.'

"He drove me to the Rhine, which I crossed on a barge, and then on to the base in Eindoven. From Holland I was flown to Brize Norton, where my CO picked me up and flew me back to base camp at Rivenhall, where I arrived around midnight.

"My wife Violet and I had only recently married – she thought I had been killed when she was told only two of the glider pilots on that mission had survived – but we made it to Leicester by lunchtime, I scored a try and Great Britain won the match."

While Williams, who was honoured with an MBE in the 2005 New Year's Honours List, was one of Welsh rugby's favourite and most celebrated sons, the friendships he forged through the game – particularly with New Zealand opponents – remained strong and true to the end.

Cliff Morgan, a former team-mate and close friend, said: "Those of us who were fortunate enough to play with him will always say Bleddyn was a true rugby man for he taught us the old-fashioned principles of courtesy and courage. His love of the open, running game set him apart: his glorious side-step, his perfectly timed pass, his speed and strength, made him a very special world class centre. There is a great sadness in my heart for I have not only lost a dear friend but Bleddyn was a magical example to us all and we will miss him."

Bleddyn Williams is survived by a son, two daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

John Kennedy

Bleddyn Llewellyn Williams, rugby union player: born Taffs Well 22 February 1923; played for Cardiff, Wales 1947-55, Lions 1950; MBE 2005; married (one son, two daughters); died Cardiff 6 July 2009.

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