The Prince of Centres (an appreciation by Alan Evans)
A dark shadow was cast over Cardiff and Welsh rugby last week with the death of Bleddyn Williams at the age of 86. As a player, ambassador and figurehead of Cardiff Rugby Football Club over the course of the last sixty years in particular, the Prince of Centres, as he was recognised in the early post-war years, had few equals. For him, the true essence of the rugby game did not begin and end with what was played out on the pitch every Saturday afternoon. Much has been made, understandably, in the obituaries about his unique achievement in leading Cardiff and Wales to victory over New Zealand in the space of a month in that glorious winter of 1953. But, as Bleddyn himself once said, "the real story of those matches in 1953 and the others we played against overseas' touring teams is how new friends were made for life and that is what sport is all about."
When he passed away Bleddyn Llewellyn Williams was still the proud president of Cardiff Athletic Club, an association that stretches back to as far as 1934 when as a schoolboy he stood on the Arms Park terrace to watch his brother Gwyn play for the blue and blacks. Barely five years later, and still only 16, he followed in his footsteps by playing for a Cardiff XV in an end of season match at Chepstow. With the outbreak of World War Two later that year, there was no question of official club rugby but there was no shortage of representative opportunities for servicemen and Bleddyn, now a young pilot in the RAF, was a popular selection for a variety of fixtures staged at the arms park. One that stood out would have been in January 1943 when he lined up for the first time with Jack Matthews for an East Wales XV against the British Army. A legendary rugby partnership had been born.
Over the course of the next ten years the Williams-Matthews midfield combination became the most celebrated in British rugby, helped by the quality of rugby turned out in the immediate post-war years by a Cardiff side in the midst of a golden era. Bleddyn always insisted that Jack and he were "only two parts of what was to become a complete club team" but regular watchers were in no doubt that they provided the x-factor in an admittedly special set-up. Both were in regular demand by a range of invitation sides, especially the Barbarians, for their headline matches. The culmination came on the 1950 British Isles tour to New Zealand and Australia when Bleddyn was the Lions' Captain in three of the six tests and Dr Jack led the side in three provincial fixtures.
But Bleddyn's heart never strayed too far from Cardiff Arms Park. In four consecutive seasons in the late 1940s he was vice-captain on three occasions and club captain in1949-50 but he will forever be linked with his second term of captaincy four years later and the blue and blacks' 8-3 triumph against the All Blacks on 21 November 1953. Before the kick-off he had famously told his team-mates, "We have got to try things; if we fail, we fail - but we have got to be different". After the final whistle, he was carried shoulder high from the pitch by those same colleagues. When Wales replicated Cardiff's heroics under his leadership four weeks later, his place in the pantheon of Welsh rugby was assured.
By the time he finally hung up his boots at the age of 32 in 1955 (the Lions' selectors of that year having controversially decreed that no player over 30 would be selected for the forthcoming tour to South Africa), Bleddyn Williams had played 283 first team games for Cardiff and scored a record 185 tries. As well as his five tests for the British Isles, he had led Wales in five of his 22 caps - and, for good measure, had never lost as an international captain.
But the bare statistics tell only a fraction of the true worth of the man. He leaves behind not only a legion of admirers world-wide, but also an army of friends nearer to home. At times like this, it's sometimes the little things that spring to mind. Those functions and meetings in the clubhouse, for instance, when he would be at his holiday home near Cardigan and think nothing of driving to Carmarthen, hopping on a train to Cardiff and return west by the last train later that night. Or his unstinting availability to sit down and talk to anyone who wished to research and celebrate the proud history of the club.
But most of all the sincerity, stature and sound common sense of a man who was, beyond doubt, the eminence grise of Cardiff rugby.