JJ and Rhys Williams: The forgotten man of athletics and the unforgettable Lion

He was the Welsh whippet of a wing who starred on the momentous 1974 tour to South Africa – his son is finally back on track after three injury-ravaged years. Simon Turnbull speaks to JJ Williams and Rhys Williams
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The Independent Online

The late afternoon sun is glinting on the windows of the café-cum-foyer at Cardiff International Sports Stadium, the small but perfectly formed athletics arena opposite the grand new home of Cardiff City Football Club. Rhys Williams breezes in and takes a seat. "Ah, the forgotten man of British athletics," you say, by way of a greeting. His eyebrows arch and the lines on his brow furrow. "Do you know, that's exactly how I feel," the once-upon-a-time European bronze medallist 400m hurdler confides.

"I'm just starting to race again now for the first time since 2006. That's three years that I've been out of it. "I've had some serious injuries – to the extent that I didn't think I would run again. I've had four stress fractures and a toe operation. I've had a tough time but I'm trying to turn it to my advantage now. I'm trying to turn it to grit and determination, and to show character. It's a tough sport. You need that fire."

Williams returned to the national track scene a fortnight ago, finishing runner-up to fellow Welshman David Greene in the 400m hurdles at the traditional curtain-raiser to the domestic summer season at Loughborough. Tomorrow afternoon he steps back on to the European circuit, competing at a meeting at Chania in Crete. British athletics has reason to be thankful that the 25-year-old is back on track, coached by Malcolm Arnold, the man who moulded Colin Jackson into a world record-breaking 110m hurdler and who guided John Akii-Bua to Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles in 1972.

There are not too many British athletes around with the kind of pedigree that Williams can boast as the domestic powers-that-be in the principal Olympic sport strive to maximise the talent at their disposal for the London Games of 2012.

The Bridgend boy was European youth champion in 2001, European junior champion in 2003 and European under 23 champion in 2005, before stepping up to senior European Championship level in Gothenburg in 2006 and taking the bronze medal in the 400m hurdles final – behind Periklis Iakovakis of Greece and Marek Pwlago of Poland. That was before he hit the brick wall of injury, at the age of 22.

That he now happens to be on the comeback trail is due in no small measure to someone who could hardly be described as a forgotten man of sport. Over the past week, on the countdown to the start of the British and Irish Lions' tour of South Africa, there has been many a sight on television documentaries and flash-back shows of JJ Williams scooting past helpless Springboks, plundering try after try for the Lions on their momentous, all-conquering tour of 1974. Rhys' celebrated father – John James, or JJ to distinguish the Welsh whippet of a wing from that other distinguished John Williams, the swashbuckling full-back better known as JPR – was the Shane Williams of his day. Blessed with the speed of an international sprinter, JJ Williams scorched home 12 tries in 30 internationals for the wondrous Welsh national sides of the 1970s.

As a British and Irish Lion, he jointly holds the records for the most tries in a Test series (four against the Springboks in 1974) and for the most tries in a tour match (six against South West Districts in 1974, one more than Shane Williams, the Osprey of the twinkling toes, managed against Manawatu in 2005). In all Test matches for the Lions, against South Africa in 1974 and New Zealand in 1977, he claimed five tries. The only Lion to have scored more is Tony O'Reilly – the great Irish wing whose international career spanned 16 seasons and who is now Sir Anthony O'Reilly, the emeritus president of Independent News and Media.

JJ is 61 now. He runs a commercial painting business based near Bridgend and is also head of the Welsh Former Players' Association and the Welsh Former Players' Charity. His three children have all represented Wales as athletes: his elder son, James, at 1500m; his daughter, Kathryn, at the 400m hurdles; and Rhys, who set a Welsh record in the 400m hurdles, 49.09sec, when he finished fourth for his country in the Commonwealth Games at the MCG in Melbourne in March 2006.

"To be honest," Rhys says, "if it hadn't been for my dad I wouldn't be running now. He's been there and done it in sport and he understands how hard it is and how much support you need. It's not just the help with the cost of it all, having been dropped from Lottery funding. It's the support as a whole. I want to do well for myself this season but I also want to do well for my dad – and for my mum, Jane, and for the other people who have helped me. I want to pay them all back."

As if on cue, in walks JJ, somewhat more silvery of hair but still looking as slim as the 12-stone slip of a wing who gave the Springboks the runaround 35 years ago. "It's such a beautiful day," he says. "Let's go out in the sunshine." So we decamp to the main stand overlooking the track where the runners, jumpers and throwers of Cardiff Amateur Athletic Club are starting to limber up for their Thursday evening workouts.

It must seem odd to JJ that he has been such a remembered man in his sport over the past week or so while his younger son has been feeling so forgotten. "Well, if Rhys can do what I did then he won't be forgotten," he says, tongue-in-cheek, chuckling. "But Rhys has had a hint of being a great sportsman. He won a European medal in his first season as a senior athlete and finished fourth in the Commonwealth Games. He was getting on to the rung of being a world star when the injuries came along and now he's starting up the ladder all over again.

"I never had any serious injuries as a sportsman but I've spoken to a few great rugby players who did. Ieuan Evans broke his ankle very badly and he said that it brought him back much stronger and more motivated. He came back a better player, and it extended his rugby life too. He ended up playing till he was 34. So I really hope that Rhys is going to come back stronger now." And quicker, naturally.

Rhys' father was quick enough to run for Wales as a sprinter at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970. He reached the quarter-finals of the 200m, finishing seventh in a race won by Don Quarrie, the Jamaican who became Olympic champion at the distance in Montreal in 1976. It was on the rugby fields of South Africa in 1974, though, that JJ used his speed to greatest effect. He scored a brace of tries in both the 28-9 victory in the second Test in Pretoria and in the series-clinching 26-9 success in Port Elizabeth.

There were some brutal exchanges throughout the latter contest but also a Williams try that was bred in heaven. "You see some amazing fighting scenes in that third Test," JJ says, reflecting on the images screened in The Invincibles, a Sky documentary narrated by Bill Paterson. "Gordon Brown [the late, much-missed Scotland lock, not to be confused with another Scot of the same name] is flattened three times. He gets up and at the next line-out creams a perfect ball off the top to Gareth Edwards, who passes out to Phil Bennett and then – bang, bang, bang – it's out to me. I do a switch with JPR and score under the posts. I heard Ian McGeechan say the other night that it was almost perfection.

"It was like Jonathan Edwards hitting the perfect jump or Colin Jackson having the perfect race. After all that had gone on in the match, all the fighting, we'd produced a bit of unbelievable skill that we'd been trying to do in training for years and years. Forward domination and then 'bang', a fabulous try."

It is made all the more fabulous, in reflection, by the sight in a classic photograph of hundreds of ecstatic black faces in the background as JJ prepares to ground the ball. "First of all, you have to ask, 'Did we do the blacks a disservice by going out there'?" he says, reflecting on a tour that went ahead after strong anti-apartheid protests back home on British soil. "Why didn't we stay away and keep the South African regime in isolation? But we knew the blacks penned into their little section at the grounds were supporting us. Listening to Bryan Habana's dad and to Peter de Villiers, the present Springbok coach, talking on the documentaries, their reaction was, 'Yes! You've shown our white masters that they can be beaten physically and through skill.' So I'd like to think we helped a bit."

Bernie Habana ventured to say that the Bok-bashers of 1974 – JJ, JPR and Co – were his heroes. Whether the tourists of 2009 can become quite so lionised, or as successful, remains to be seen over the course of the next six weeks. "I'm not saying they can't win, but it's going to be difficult," JJ ponders. "Some of the players will really have to step up to the mark – the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Williams, the two outside halves, Paul O'Connell. If they don't, they won't survive because to beat the Springboks out there you have to do something special." Just as Rhys Williams' beloved dad did 35 years ago.

Fathers and sons

The Bothams Liam Botham started his sporting career following in the cricketing footsteps of his England legend father Ian, taking the wicket of Mike Gatting on his debut for Hampshire, but made his name as a rugby union wing, playing for Newcastle and England A.

The Brightwells Ian and David Brightwell played for Manchester City, bringing one half of the family name back into the spotlight in the 1980s. Dad Robbie Brightwell won Olympic 4x400m silver in Tokyo in 1964; mum Ann Packer won 800m gold.

The Broads Son Stuart is making a name for himself as a quick bowler for Nottinghamshire and England. Dad Chris was an opening batsman for Notts and England in the 1980s, scoring six centuries in 25 Test appearances.

The Lampards Frank Lampard Senior, an FA Cup winner with West Ham in 1975 and 1980, won two England caps as a left back. Frank Lampard Junior, the Chelsea midfielder, has 69 England caps and is still counting.