John Billot: Journalist with the 'Western Mail' for 43 years

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The Independent Online

No man could possibly have written more words on Welsh rugby than John Billot, the former sports editor of the Western Mail newspaper in Cardiff. During a 43-year career at the paper, he rose to become the chief rugby correspondent and sports editor.

Starting as a fresh-faced 16-year-old in the library, he became a copy boy on the newsroom floor and was bitten by the journalistic bug. That was in 1946; 18 months later, he was writing match reports for the Cardiff Times and South Wales Echo as he began to climb the ladder. He struck up an immediate rapport with J.B.G. Thomas, rugby doyen of the Western Mail, and they developed into the most powerful and influential rugby-writing double act in the country.

While Thomas was the front-of-house man, travelling the world with the Lions and Wales, Billot was happy to hold the fort in Cardiff and ensure that the Western Mail's coverage of local events was as comprehensive and powerful as those further afield. They helped steer circulation through the 100,000 barrier and Billot built his reputation despite working in Thomas's considerable shadow. He was often the man who uncovered the next tier of rugby stars and introduced the future faces of the national team through his coverage of the Welsh Schools and Wales Youth teams.

His influence on the Welsh rugby scene grew through his administration of the Western Mail's "Unofficial Welsh Championship", which involved the top 18 teams. There were often battles over which games should be included, but Billot's fairness and accuracy made it a title that teams coveted.

Cricket was another passion and Billot travelled thousands of miles covering Glamorgan. The vast distances he covered were due not only to the years he wrote on the Welsh county, but also because he hated being away from his family. He thought nothing of driving up and back to his home in Rhiwbina, Cardiff, on a daily basis from Hove, Taunton, Birmingham, London and even Yorkshire.

Wherever he travelled, however, it was never without his AA membership and the key to their breakdown telephone boxes. Billot knew where almost every phone was situated on the major roads because he used to use them to file his copy. His was an age in newspapers devoid of mobile phones and email, but dominated by immaculate and rapid shorthand, copy takers and portable typewriters.

His attention to detail was his stock-in-trade and the service he provided to Welsh rugby over and above his work at the Western Mail became legendary. In 1969, he launched the Rugby Annual for Wales. Over the next four decades he was managing editor and helped it to 37 editions without a break. On top of that, he is credited with writing the definitive guide to Welsh international rugby, the twice updated History of Welsh International Rugby that was first produced in 1970.

Billot cut his teeth in publishing when typing the manuscript for Thomas' first book, On Tour, which covered the 1955 Lions tour in South Africa. A year later, he ghosted the autobiography of the great Cardiff, Wales and Lions centre Bleddyn Williams. He also wrote two more invaluable historical books, The All Blacks in Wales and The Springboks in Wales, and was a contributor on Welsh rugby for 28 years to the Rothmans Rugby Union Yearbook. He was also secretary of the Welsh Rugby Writers' Association from its inception in 1972 until 1991 and chairman in 1993-94.

In 1982, Billot stepped into the shoes of Thomas as the Western Mail's chief rugby correspondent and sports editor. He oversaw the introduction of a successful sports supplement and played a major role in influencing the careers of three of today's leading rugby writers, Chris Jones (Evening Standard), Steve Bale (Daily Express) and Paul Rees (The Guardian).

His love of sport was matched by his love of comics and cigarette cards and many a player picked up a novel nickname. Clive Burgess, the Ebbw Vale and Wales back-row forward, was known as "The Steel Claw", the Aberavon captain Adrian Owen was better known as "Mule Train" and the Ebbw Vale prop Peter Morgan was "Buffalo".

Rob Cole

John Billot, sports journalist: born Cardiff 2 October 1929; married 1955 Sheila (one son, two daughters); died Cardiff 28 September 2009.