Gerwyn Williams: Rugby full-back who helped Wales beat the All Blacks

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The Independent Online

Shortly before Gerwyn Williams died, the Welsh Rugby Union went some way to reuniting him with one of his most treasured possessions. His first Welsh international cap, which he won when he made his debut for Wales against Ireland in 1950, had been proudly presented to his old school, Port Talbot Grammar, many years before.

But Williams's cap went missing some time in the Sixties. More than 40 years later, the WRU took the decision to offer him a replacement and it arrived in January as he entered the last throes of his battle with cancer.

Williams was a classic full-back who featured in one of the greatest victories in the history of Welsh rugby, the 13-8 win over New Zealand at Cardiff Arms Park in December 1953 which remains the last victory by Wales over the All Blacks. By that point, Williams had already played a part in two Grand Slam campaigns.

While the try scorer Ken Jones and his provider Clem Thomas always take the headlines for creating that piece of history, the Wales skipper Bleddyn Williams never forgets the key role played by his namesake.

"Gerwyn was a very good full-back – neat and tidy in everything he did and very sound under the high ball. While Ken Jones ran in the try that helped us to win that game, it was Gerwyn who helped me in the closing moments to hold up the New Zealand outside-half Brian Fitzpatrick and save a try," Bleddyn Williams recalled.

A talented all-rounder at Port Talbot Grammar School, from where he won a Wales Under-15 rugby cap against England and a Welsh Schools cricket cap, he went to Loughborough College after serving in the Royal Navy between 1941-46.

While he was at Loughborough he won the College welterweight boxing title and played in the College XV with his future Welsh international team mate Ken Jones. But it was from London Welsh that he won the first two of his 13 caps. He made his international debut in the Triple Crown decider against Ireland in Belfast, having joined an unbeaten Welsh team halfway through the 1950 Five Nations championship. Wales were hoping to take their first Triple Crown in 39 years and the 25-year-old full-back got embroiled in a nail-biting affair.

There was no score in the first half and then a try for Wales by Ken Jones was cancelled out by a home penalty (both were worth three points at the time). Three minutes remained when Malcolm Thomas was sent racing to the left corner on a quest for glory.

He dived for the line, was bundled into the corner flag, yet credited with the try by the Scottish referee RA Beattie. Wales had ended the long wait for the Triple Crown and Williams had got his career off to a flying start.

The Grand Slam game against France was a formality, Wales winning 21-0. Williams retained his place for the next 10 matches. Included in that run was a full house of four victories in the 1952 Grand Slam and an appearance against the South Africans in 1951. In fact, Williams played four times against the Springboks, for Llanelli and the Barbarians, and also in the only side to beat them on their tour, London Counties.

Williams spent three seasons at Stradey Park playing for Llanelli and at the same time launched his teaching career at Ardwyn Grammar School in Aberystwyth. He spent two years there before moving on to Harrow County School in 1952, where he made an immediate impact by coaching the 1st XV to its first unbeaten season.

His playing career, at both international and club levels, came to an end when he dislocated his shoulder in the opening championship fixture of the 1954 Five Nations against England at Twickenham. He picked up the injury in the first-half trying to stop Ted Woodward scoring England's first try.

He had treatment at half-time and bravely returned, but Wales went on to lose 9-6 and Williams was forced to retire from playing. Not that he ever left the game. That year he became an Assistant Master at Whitgift School in Surrey and remained there for 30 years, the vast majority of that time as Chief PE Master.

In 1968 he helped to coach the Cambridge University team that won the Varsity Match at Twickenham and he also wrote four books on rugby – Modern Rugby (1964), Schoolboy Rugby (1966), Tackle Rugger This Way (1968) and Tackle Rugger (1975).

Rob Cole

Gerwyn Williams, rugby union player and coach: born Glyncorrwg 22 April 1924; married 1944 Josephine Sangwin (two sons); died Clare, Suffolk 10 February 2009.