Alan Watkins: Bleddyn, a streak of lightning in the post-war gloom

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The Independent Online

Tucked away at the end of the New Year Honours List could be found the announcement of an MBE to one B L Williams for services to rugby football. It was, of course, Bleddyn Williams, the greatest Welsh centre of the post-war era; perhaps the greatest Welsh centre of all time, his only rival being Gwyn Nicholls, also of Cardiff, who appeared against the All Blacks in 1905. Bleddyn (as he was universally known) was to play his part in another winning performance in 1953.

It is difficult today for those under 60 to realise quite what a miserable place Britain was in the immediate post-war period. There has been a certain romanticising of the Attlee government. But it was not a matter of party politics; food rationing, for example, came to a complete end only in 1954, when the Conservatives had been in power for three years, and Bleddyn was within a year of his final cap.

There were two sportsmen who did more than any of the others to lighten the prevailing gloom. In cricket, there was Denis Compton. In rugby, there was Bleddyn. Both were similar in height and build. Both came from relatively modest backgrounds - Bleddyn's father was a coal-trimmer in Cardiff docks. He had, however, been taken up by Wilfred Wooller, the pre-war Wales centre and post-war captain of Glamorgan, who secured a place for him at Rydal School in North Wales.

In cricket, Compton was a professional who played like an amateur. Rugby union was then still completely amateur, but many of its practitioners had a grim approach to the game.

Bleddyn was not like this. Certainly he could kick, tackle and pass. But his gift was for opening up defences. There were three parts to his repertoire: his sidestep, his swerve and, above all, Bleddyn's jink. The last was difficult to define but could be recognised when you saw it. In the last quarter of a match, when Wales or Cardiff were losing, or even if the match was proving rather dull, the growl would go up from the stands: "Give the ball to Bleddyn.'' These were the days when not only the centres might go a whole match without a sight of the ball. The outside-half might not see much of it either. As it was possible to kick direct to touch from outside the "22'' the scrum-half would occupy a rainy afternoon by hoisting the ball up the touchline, hoping to see his efforts rewarded with a scrambled try.

In such dark surroundings, Bleddyn could be a shaft of lightning. And the injunction to give him the ball could be heard from the stands at St Helen's or Stradey Park when he was appearing for Cardiff. The opposing side. He completely overrode the East-West divide which once afflicted Welsh rugby.

The split went back to the inter-war period, when the good folk of West Wales thought that their favourite son, the Llanelli centre Albert Jenkins, was being excluded from the Welsh side in favour of what were known dismissively as "college boys''. After the war the target became Cardiff boys, for Cardiff were then the leading club in the world. There was never any suggestion that Bleddyn did not deserve his place on his own merits, irrespective of his club.

He was quite large for a centre of his generation, 5ft 10in and something over 13st, the average size of a Premiership scrum-half today. His Cardiff and Wales partner, Dr Jack Matthews, was slightly shorter but heavier. Dr Jack had once gone several rounds with a young US serviceman who found himself in Cardiff called Rocky Marciano, and lived to tell the tale. Not many people know that.

The first column of the new year is a good time for contrition, which I now display. Two weeks ago I wrote here that Sky still held the rights to England home internationals and to the France v England match in Paris. This is not so. The rights to the televising of the Six Nations Championship have reverted to the BBC which, indeed, covered last season's competition.

I am at a loss to explain why this particular mental cavity opened up. I had a remarkably sober pre-Christmas period. What makes my mistake even more inexplicable is that I have always taken what I like to think is a close interest in television coverage, regarding it as the most important question confronting the game. My apologies, therefore, to the Rugby Football Union and to the BBC, both of which I criticised for lacking a proper sense of responsibility.