Cliff Morgan: Rugby union international who went on to a glittering career with the BBC


Thursday 22 August 2013 20:30

While providing the soundtrack for a memorable sporting moment confers a kind of immortality there is a danger with Cliff Morgan, who has died aged 83, of it detracting from other achievements and accomplishments as one of rugby union's acknowledged greats and a broadcasting executive.

To hear Morgan's name is to summon up those mellifluous East Walian tones describing Gareth Edwards' extraordinary try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in January 1973. It was a broadcasting moment that might easily not have happened. Morgan was deputising for an equally evocative voice, Bill McLaren, who was unwell and was himself less than a year removed from a stroke that had left his speech slurred.

Yet it was the perfect confluence of man and moment. The Barbarians length-of-the-field counter-attack was rugby as he had played it – "mostly off the top of my head. I played it as it happened". It was on the same ground against the same opponents as two of the great triumphs of his career, victories by Cardiff and Wales over the 1953 All Blacks. Edwards, like him, was a Cardiff half-back from mining heritage.

Morgan was, in the words of the historians Dai Smith and Gareth Williams "an amalgam of the social and cultural forces that had shaped modern Wales and of the currents that were defining modern Welshness anew." He was born in 1930 in Trebanog, a hillside offshoot of the Rhondda, into "the Welshness of a nonconformist home where Mam ruled and Sunday was for chapel", and claimed not to have met a Conservative until he was 26.

Like many outstanding Welsh players he was the beneficiary of a perceptive teacher-mentor. At Tonyrefail Grammar School Ned Gribble insisted that his protégé gain the awareness which comes from playing other positions – including as a forward – before settling into his predestined role as an outside-half. He progressed from Wales Secondary Schools in 1948 to senior rugby with Cardiff a year later and his Wales debut in 1951. A fixture for club and country until his retirement in 1958, he played 202 times for Cardiff and won 29 caps – a record for a Welsh outside-half until 1996 – plus four for the Lions on their 1955 tour of South Africa.

His dominance truncated the international careers of brilliant Welsh contemporaries like Glyn Davies, Carwyn James and Roy Burnett. James, acute in intellect and observation, conceded that "I had to think carefully about everything that I did on the field. Cliff was different. He did everything naturally and quickly, instinctively and expertly. He was a much better player than I was." That intuitive speed of thought and movement was also essential in a defence-dominated era in which, as his Welsh team-mate Clem Thomas recalled, "back rows had a licence to kill outside-halves."

It made him the most vivid rugby presence of his time, memorably recalled by Smith and Williams "with the ball held at arm's length in front of him, his tongue out almost as far, his bow legs pumping like pistons, nostrils flaring and a range of facial expressions seen north of Milan." But as well as being in his own words "a show-off", he was an all-round footballer capable of controlling an international match – as he did at a storm-drenched, windswept Twickenham in 1958 – with astute tactical kicking.

He captained Wales to a shared championship in 1956 and played in four title-winning teams (two shared) in eight seasons. Yet he probably peaked with the 1955 Lions, fulcrum of a brilliant attacking team which drew 2-2 with South Africa and, in the words of JBG Thomas "the radioactive particle around which the whole social side of the tour revolved."

A season with Bective Rangers while working in Ireland in 1954-55 brought two tangible benefits – the only trophy of his life (none was then awarded in the Five Nations) when Bective won the Leinster Cup, and meeting Nuala Martin, whom he married in 1955. They had two children.

Retirement in 1958 left two unfulfilled playing ambitions – touring New Zealand and playing rugby league for Wigan, who had offered him £7,500 to sign in 1952. Another year of rugby should have seen the New Zealand dream fulfilled with the 1959 Lions, but in that still-amateur age "I couldn't afford to go on playing big-time rugby."

Welsh broadcasters were already aware of the qualities of warmth and wit epitomised by his labelling scrum-half Rex Willis his "better half", and he joined the BBC . Rugby fame gave him, like several Welsh stars since, his opportunity but Morgan had natural broadcasting talent founded on that beguiling voice and a poet-like ear for the right word. Nor would those qualities alone have served to make him the successful broadcasting executive he became – editing Grandstand from 1961 to 1964 and ITV's current affairs programme This Week from 1964-66.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins, who worked for him at the BBC in the 1970s, recalled that he "acted by instinct in life, with fire in his belly and passion in his heart" and was "probably happier broadcasting than managing." As well as some memorable match commentaries, he was with Henry Cooper one of the first team captains of BBC TV's A Question of Sport.

In 1976 he became Head of Television Outside Broadcasts, merging two departments "which had not spoken to each other for 10 years", with responsibility not only for sport but state events such as royal weddings and funerals – rugby once more helping since the Queen's then-secretary Philip Moore had been a Barbarians team- mate in 1951.

Effectively sacked in 1987, he returned to radio with Sport on Four, a warmly nostalgic Saturday morning magazine programme which ran until 1998 and published a fine autobiography, co-written by Geoffrey Nicholson, founding rugby correspondent of this paper, in 1996. He was awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting in 1977 and a CVO in 1986.

Nuala died suddenly in 1999, but he was remarried to Patricia Ewing in 2001. His later years were clouded by ill-health including, with peculiar cruelty, cancer of the larynx, which again wrecked that matchless voice.

Huw Edwards

Clifford Isaac Morgan, rugby union player and broadcaster: born Trebanog, Rhondda 7 April 1930; OBE 1977; married 1955 Nuala Martin (died 1999; one son, one daughter), 2001 Patricia Ewing; died 29 August 2013.

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