Playing through dislocated shoulders and beating the All Blacks

The death in the space of ten days of former Wales captain John Gwilliam and threequarter Gareth Griffiths mean that only one player, the prop forward Courtenay Meredith, survives from the last Wales team to beat the All Blacks 63 years ago this month.

It is news which at the same time as taking us back to a world in which Wales not only beat the All Blacks, but rather expected to — their 13-8 win on Dec. 19 1953 was their third in four meetings since 1905 — but has echoes still heard to this day.

It is a thought that Gwilliam, a Cambridge history graduate who believed that there was plenty to be learnt from the study of the past and cherished a much-thumbed rare copy of Gallaher and Stead’s The Complete Rugby Footballer, would particularly have appreciated.

And as a sharply appreciative observer of modern rugby, he doubtless recognised the debates now raging in Wales over the effectiveness of the national team’s ‘Warrenball’ tactics as a reprise of similar arguments during his own career.

These cast Gwilliam on one side and his almost-exact contemporary Bleddyn Williams — born in the same week in 1923 — on the other. It was Williams who was the heir apparent as captain of Wales after Haydn Tanner retired in 1949, but Gwilliam who inherited when the great centre was stricken by injury in Jan. 1950. And in those days the captain was, in Gwilliam’s own words, “coach, captain and Father Christmas rolled into one”.

Williams was the exemplar of freethinking, heads-up rugby, in his own words “going out, assessing the opposition and playing it by ear”. It helped that the ear in question unquestionably had perfect pitch. And he was also, almost unconsciously, an educator of the less experienced players around him. Griffiths, a team-mate for Cardiff and Wales, recalled that “he talked to you as you went along through the game”.

Gwilliam was also a talker, which meant losing his voice 10 minutes into his first game as Wales’ captain at Twickenham in 1950. But he whispered to such effect that team-mate John Robins became convinced that his captain had taken an intense dislike to him.

“”Don’t use any of those long wild passes, don’t flip the ball back from the line-out, don’t hold the ball in the scrum — otherwise play your own game””

Selector Vince Griffiths’ advice to John Gwilliam

Like the schoolteacher he was, Gwilliam talked for a purpose, and to instruct — once famously telling Williams and Jack Matthews, his partner at centre for Cardiff, Wales and the Lions and lifelong friend, how to pass the ball.

His tactical vision was built on forward domination. There was always a role for brilliance, like the colossal double-scissors move pulled off by Rex Willis, Cliff Morgan and Ken Jones in the victory at Twickenham in 1952 — a result which made him the first, and until last year the only, Wales captain to win twice at Twickenham and like its predecessor in 1950, the beginnings of a Grand Slam. But it was the forward power, in which his own skills as a line-out winning No.8 were fundamental, which was the key to a controlled, structured gameplan — ‘Triple Crown Rugby’ in the argot of the time.

There was a sense of detachment about him, not least in the geographical sense. While his first senior games were for Newport, teaching at first Glenalmond then Bromsgrove schools meant that most of his club rugby was played for Edinburgh Wanderers and Gloucester, insulating him to a degree from Welsh rugby politics.

It was also a matter of manner. Cliff Morgan recalled that, “You always felt you should call John ‘sir'”. Many had, not only in that teaching career which culminated in 25 years as head of Birkenhead School, but during war service in which he curled and contorted his 6’3″ into a standard issue British army tank.

Along with that height and military bearing were deeply felt religious beliefs shared with his wife Pegi, a great-niece of David Lloyd George. The phrase ‘Cromwellian’ tends to recur in descriptions of him.

And yet, encountered in an interview at his home in Llanfairfechan not long before his 80th birthday, the formidable appearance turned out to conceal a sharp sense of humour and a most un-Cromwellian chuckle. His ‘Hennie Muller, dear, dear !’ summed up the awe inspired in contemporaries by the great Springbok flanker as well as any longer, more analytical consideration.

John Gwilliam (left) alongside TS McRoberts in 1950 Barratts/EMPICS Sport

He also once recalled in print the instructions he was given by selector Vince Griffiths on becoming captain of Wales: “Don’t use any of those long wild passes, don’t flip the ball back from the line-out, don’t hold the ball in the scrum — otherwise play your own game”. These were, Gwilliam wrote, “the sum of the ideas I had for winning a rugby match”.

That essay is, like Mike Gibson’s much-anthologised musings on Irish outside-halves, of a quality to make one regret that its author never wrote his memoirs — confining himself to a coaching book published in 1958. His own reflections on a rugby life incorporating 23 caps between 1947 and 1954, 12 matches as captain including those victories at Twickenham and the Grand Slams, and the kerfuffle he inspired as a coach – “It caused a terrible fuss. Not British, you know” – by following through on his studies of Gallaher and Stead and fielding a seven-man pack in a school match, would have been well worth reading.

But he has his literary monument in David Parry-Jones’s The Gwilliam Seasons, second of DPJ’s trilogy on Welsh rugby’s golden ages and, in an indirect sense — via his appointment of the young Gareth Williams to a teaching job at Birkenhead — in Fields of Praise, the centenary history of the Welsh Rugby Union by Dai Smith and Gareth Williams that remains arguably the finest book ever written about the game. Their verdict on Gwilliam was that he was “perhaps Wales’s greatest captain in a hundred years”. By an archetypally Welsh coincidence, Dai Smith had Gareth Griffiths’ path still earlier in life, as a pupil at Tonypandy Primary School, where, “His freehand chalk sketch of a map of Canada, with lakes and rivers effortlessly drawn on the board, impressed me even more than receiving a pass from him on the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground”.

Griffiths, the youngest member of the Wales team against the All Blacks, was in every sense a fit study for a young historian-to-be, not merely already a figure from memorable events but as a chapel-raised Welsh speaker from the Rhondda Valley who had served in the armed forces before going into teaching the exemplar of an extraordinary range of Welsh formative forces.

“”His freehand chalk sketch of a map of Canada, with lakes and rivers effortlessly drawn on the board, impressed me even more than receiving a pass from him”

Dai Smith on Gareth Griffiths

A schoolboy sprint champion who broke records set by Jack Matthews he was, he reckoned, still “a runner learning to be a rugby player” when he won his first cap against England at the start of 1953, but it was sheer physical fortitude that made him a hero in the All Black match.

Wales were losing 8-5, with the All Black pack in control, when Griffiths dislocated his right shoulder in a collision with, he thinks, New Zealand centre John Tanner midway through the second half. While radio commentator GV Wynne-Jones reminded his audience that Wales had beaten the All Blacks in 1935 with 14 men after hooker Don Tarr’s neck was broken, the likelier outcome on this occasion seemed to be a decisive New Zealand win.

Griffiths walked off the pitch and was greeted by the Wales doctor — and later WRU president — Nathan Rocyn-Jones, an orthopaedic surgeon: “He said go and lie down on the blanket. I did as I was told and in a few seconds he put it back in. It was aching, but it certainly was not excruciating.”

Griffiths matter-of-factness is balanced by Wales physio Ray Lewis’s fear that he might be injured again “but he just would not listen” and winger Gwyn Rowlands, a doctor, describing his return to the field as “exceptionally brave”.

Wales had been holding on desperately during his absence. His return, Bleddyn Williams recalled, “Made one hell of a difference. We had been under this enormous pressure and suddenly there we were with numbers even again”. All Black Bill Clark remembered: “It was frustrating for us. We knew we should have scored and had not.”

The psychological swing was vital. Within minutes Rowlands penalty, awarded questionably against Clark, had levelled the score for Wales. Then came what TP McLean called ‘The Bounce of the Century’, favouring Ken Jones over Ron Jarden as the two finest wingers in the world converged on a Clem Thomas cross-kick and creating Wales’s winning try.

Griffiths forever after downplayed suggestions that he had been a hero, although did once concede that it was a day “on which I went from being a boy to something approaching manhood”.

He went on to a career encompassing 12 Wales caps and five tries and three tests on the Lions tour of South Africa in 1955, which he joined as a replacement. A Barbarians tour of Canada in 1957 proved to be life-changing as he was introduced to a personnel officer, and set on a change of career which would lead to jobs with British Steel, the Western Mail, Times Newspaper and full board membership of Amersham International before returning to Wales as Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

Encountered in his early 70s he seemed much younger than his years — sharp-witted, animated and with acutely perceptive memories of his playing days.

Eighty-five when he died on Dec. 12, he was the last survivor of those who played for both Cardiff and Wales in their victories over the All Blacks in 1953. Three New Zealanders — Tanner, the scrum-half Keith Davis and flanker Bill McCaw — remain from the All Blacks team beaten by Wales on Dec. 19 that year.

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