R.I.P. John Peter Rhys (“JPR”) Williams (1949-2024)

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A cold and miserable day in Cardiff yesterday got even sadder when news came out of the death of Welsh rugby legend John Peter Rhys Williams known universally as “JPR” after the winger John James Williams (another great player), joined the national team and became “JJ”. JPR was one of the superb players who dominated Welsh rugby in the 1970s; he stood out even in such exalted company. In my opinion JPR is was the greatest full-back ever.

JPR was instantly recognizable on the field: tall and craggy, with characteristic long hair, prominent sideburns, socks always rolled down around his ankles, he was an imposing figure whether patrolling the defensive lines or stepping up to join the attack. In the famous 1973 match in Cardiff between The Barbarians and New Zealand he was described by commentator Cliff Morgan as “a man who never shirks his responsibility”. Just watch the memorable opening try where you’ll see JPR in the thick of the action, twice shrugging off dangerous tackles around his neck, the second time receiving the ball from Phil Bennett to start the passing move from deep inside his own half.

As a full-back, JPR was often the last line of defence. Sometimes, tidying up after a kick from the opposition, he would clear his lines by kicking. More often, though, he would spot a weakness and go charging forward, ball in hand, not afraid to run straight at the opposition. He was quick to spot gaps in his own defence too, rushing to provide cover, often with last-ditch try-saving tackles.

As good as he was at turning defence into attack, he was even better when his side were already in control. Here are two tries he scored for Wales against England in 1976 that demonstrate his superb positional sense in attack as well as his sheer physical strength.

(Wales achieved a Grand Slam in 1976; England got the Wooden Spoon.)

JPR was a tough, aggressive and uncompromising man on the field – players certainly knew when he’d tackled them! – but a gentleman off it, and held in a very high regard throughout the rugby world and beyond. His loss is immeasurable. One by one the legends are leaving us. The world is poorer without them.

Rest in peace, J.P.R. Williams (1949-2024)

P.S. When living in Cardiff years ago I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with two Welsh rugby legends, Gerald Davies and Phil Bennett (the former at a function, the latter at a book-signing). Both were charmingly modest men. I never really met JPR properly but I remember vividly stepping out of my house in Pontcanna on a Six Nations match day and finding myself face-to-face with him in the street. He must have been around 60 then and was still the same imposing figure he was in the 1970s. I recognized him immediately. I wanted to say something and perhaps even shake his hand, but I was too star-struck.

P.P.S. JPR was a fully-qualified orthopaedic surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. This is a reminder that back in the 1970s, Rugby Union was still an amateur game.

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