Athletics: Rhys the fast-rising son in Rawlinson's slipstream

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The Independent Online

This afternoon Rhys Williams steps into the shoes of Chris Rawlinson. In the absence of the injured Commonwealth champion, the young Welshman has been asked to represent the Loughborough Students team in the 400m hurdles at the Loughborough International Meeting, the traditional curtain-raiser to the top-class domestic track and field season. The burden is unlikely to weigh heavily upon his shoulders. The talented Williams is already following promisingly in the footsteps of his famous father - on one side of the sporting fence, at least.

This afternoon Rhys Williams steps into the shoes of Chris Rawlinson. In the absence of the injured Commonwealth champion, the young Welshman has been asked to represent the Loughborough Students team in the 400m hurdles at the Loughborough International Meeting, the traditional curtain-raiser to the top-class domestic track and field season. The burden is unlikely to weigh heavily upon his shoulders. The talented Williams is already following promisingly in the footsteps of his famous father - on one side of the sporting fence, at least.

It was as a fleet-footed flier of a rugby union wing that John Williams made his name - as JJ Williams, in fact, to distinguish himself from the other great John Williams in the Welsh team of the 1970s, the swashbuckling full-back JPR. JJ was a member of the Welsh side of 1978, the last from the Principality to complete a Grand Slam before Mike Ruddock's Cymru class of 2005. He still shares two try-scoring records for the British and Irish Lions ahead of their 2005 tour to New Zealand. At Monsel Bay in South Africa in 1974, he plundered six tries against South-West Districts, equalling David Duckham's tally for the most by a Lion in a single match. He also scored four tries in four matches against the Springboks on that tour, equalling Willie Llewellyn's record for the most tries in a Test series.

It was as a sprinter, however, that JJ first appeared on the international sporting scene. He competed for Wales in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, running in the 100m heats and the 200m quarter-finals and finishing fifth in the final of the 4 x 100m relay. Thirty-five years on, his son has achieved the Welsh selection standard in the 400m hurdles for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, to be held in Melbourne in March. Running in the wind and rain at the British Universities' Championship in Glasgow three weeks ago, Rhys won in 50.57sec, a lifetime best. It ranks him second in Britain in 2005, just 0.07sec behind Rawlinson, who won the Commonwealth title in Manchester in 2002 and who intends to retire from international competition after defending it on Australian soil in the spring.

At 21, Williams is Rawlinson's junior by 12 years and very much the rising British star of the 400m hurdles. Winner of the European Youth Olympics title in 2001 and of the European Junior Championship crown in 2003, he has swiftly rediscovered the path to progress after undergoing foot surgery in 2004. He has done so with the help of Rawlinson, with whom he trains as a member of the élite group of 400m hurdlers coached by Nick Dakin at Loughborough University.

"It's a shame that Chris is not competing on Sunday," Williams lamented. "I was originally supposed to run for the Welsh team against him and I was looking forward to that. It's great training with Chris because we can push each other. It has helped me massively this year."

Should Williams gather further momentum with a victory today and should Rawlinson fail to recover from injury, the young man from Bridgend could well make his senior Great Britain debut against the United States and Russia in the Norwich Union International in Glasgow on 4 June. He would still have some way to go, though, to supplant his training partner as British No 1 - and to make it to the season's main event, the World Championships in Helsinki in August. The qualifying time for competition in the Finnish capital is 49.20sec.

"I've got to set myself high goals, but they have to be realistic goals," Williams said. "I'd love to sit here and go, 'Yeah, yeah, I think I could beat Chris.' But I know that Chris is in brilliant shape this year. My main aim for this year is to go for the European Under-23 Championships [at Erfurt in Germany in July] and to try to feature there. I'd also like to establish myself in the senior ranks, and to try to get under 50 seconds. Then there's the Commonwealth Games next spring. I've got to take it one step at a time and just hope to keep improving."

A third-year student of sports science at Loughborough University, Williams, like his father before him, happens to be a man of many sporting talents. As a swimmer, he was the Welsh under-16 backstroke champion - by all accounts, good enough to have given David Davies, the Olympic 1500m bronze medallist, a hard time in the pool. He was also a full-back in the Welsh under-18 rugby union squad before he chose to focus his attention solely on athletics.

"I wanted to balance athletics and rugby but it's too difficult these days," he reflected. "My dad combined the two when he was younger but he concentrated on rugby after he ran in the Commonwealths. He realised he would be better at rugby and it worked out for him."

If it works out in track and field for Rhys Williams, nobody will take greater pride than his father. Now 57, JJ takes a guiding interest in his son's athletics progress, acting as an overall adviser on his training. "Oh, he's massively influential," Williams junior said. "I speak to him on the phone every day. I remember him showing me one of his training diaries and looking at the massive sessions he did. He's got a similar attitude to me: the work's got to be done, because it doesn't come as naturally as maybe it does for some people. I've learned a lot from him. He's a great example to follow."

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