Home Sport Wales great JJ Williams was the lion who ran like a cheetah

Wales great JJ Williams was the lion who ran like a cheetah


Whenever a privileged guest asked him about the greatest of all Lions tours, JJ Williams would point to a ‘treasured’ picture on the wall of his inner sanctum.

The black and white imagery makes it as symbolic today as the day it was snapped, in Port Elizabeth on July 13, 1974, when the Welsh wing ran like the wind and did what no Lion had done before or since. 

His fourth try in successive Tests against the Springboks clinched the series and none cheered louder or longer than the victims of apartheid in the cheap seats behind the posts.

Former Wales and British & Irish Lions player JJ Williams (above) has died at the age of 72

 Former Wales and British & Irish Lions player JJ Williams (above) has died at the age of 72

Their ecstatic reaction gave the scorer as much satisfaction over the ensuing 46 years as the beauty of the try itself. South Africa had been expelled by the IOC and FIFA but rugby’s predictable refusal to take a similar stand left the Lions to weather a storm of protest.

‘I treasure the photograph not because it’s me but because of the reaction of the black people in the crowd,’ he said. ‘The sheer joy on their faces, the arms raised in a victory salute at another Lions try is something I still marvel at.

‘Their jubilation stemmed from the all-white Springboks being hammered. They were effectively saying to us, “Thank you for showing that the white supremacist regime running our country is not so supreme after all. Thank you for coming. Thank you for beating them.”.’

The winger played 30 times for Wales during a six-year international career from 1973 to 1979

 The winger played 30 times for Wales during a six-year international career from 1973 to 1979

The cheering extended all the way to Robben Island. The story goes that Nelson Mandela and fellow inmate Steve Tshwete who would become Minister of Sport under Mandela’s presidency, clubbed together to send the untouchable Welshman a small token of their appreciation.

‘They gave me two rand notes, a fantastic gesture,’ he said. ‘I was told that I was supposed to be one of President Mandela’s favourite players. I don’t think anyone could ask for a bigger compliment.’

There was far more to JJ, so called to distinguish him from the other John Williams, alias JPR, than the Lion who ran like a cheetah. 

A multi-national sprint champion who competed at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, a family man whose three children all made their mark as athletes, an employer blessed with the acumen to run his own painting business and a fearless critic, he died on Thursday from brain cancer.

Williams (left) leaves behind a successful sporting family including athletics star Rhys (right)

Williams (left) leaves behind a successful sporting family including athletics star Rhys (right)

A hitherto youthful 72, his place in the pantheon had long been assured. At a time before the old Corinthian spirit had been battered into a pulp, when the Lions played strictly for the love of the game and responded by compiling the only invincible tour record: Played 22, Won 21, Drawn 1, Lost 0, Points for 729, against 207.

Far from not making a bean, Williams and his wife, Jane, lost a small fortune. The local education authority’s refusal to grant him paid leave from Maesteg Comprehensive School left the newly-weds struggling to pay the mortgage.

Once established as an automatic choice in the Welsh team of the Seventies, probably the most revered of the amateur era, JJ became increasingly infuriated by the WRU’s penny-pinching. 

Williams scored 48 points for Wales during his career and was regarded as a very quick player

 Williams scored 48 points for Wales during his career and was regarded as a very quick player

The most ludicrous example happened while he nibbled at a lunch of toast and honey before a match against England at Twickenham.

The chairman of selectors, Jack Young, tapped him on the shoulder to query his £5 expenses claim for the previous week. 

‘That’s right, Jack — two trips from Maesteg to Cardiff and back. Petrol isn’t cheap these days, you know.’ According to JJ, Young told him: ‘We worked it out at £3.80. You owe us £1.20.’

Worse was to follow. Within days of returning home from South Africa to Nantyffyllon, Widnes had offered him a world record £13,500 in September 1974 to cross the Rubicon to rugby league. 

Williams repeatedly become infuriated with the Welsh Rugby Union during his career

Williams repeatedly become infuriated with the Welsh Rugby Union during his career

Absurdly, any public admission of such an offer exposed the player concerned to a lifetime ban under draconian rugby union regulations. 

Warned about the consequences, he said: ‘Go ahead and quote me. What are they going to do? Ban me?’

Which was exactly what they did. Despite announcing that he had turned Widnes down, JJ reported to Stradey Park the next day for Llanelli’s match only to be told by the Scarlets’ honorary secretary, the late Ken Jones: ‘Sorry JJ, you can’t play. The WRU say you have professionalised yourself.’

Williams also played seven times for the British and Irish Lions (above) in a memorable spell

Williams also played seven times for the British and Irish Lions (above) in a memorable spell 

Enraged, Williams drove home ready to fight his corner. ‘The WRU saw fit to make me feel I had committed some sort of crime when all I had done was decline a fortune for the glory of continuing to play for Wales for nothing,’ he wrote in his autobiography.

He reported for training the following week, by which time the union realised that to press charges would provoke public outrage. He retired six years after the Lions tour with a career record of 352 tries from 438 matches.

Of the unbeatable Lions of 1974, JJ is the fourth to die following Gordon Brown (53), Andy Ripley (62) and Mervyn Davies (65).

The game they play in heaven is about to get a whole lot faster.

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