Remembering JJ’s team

It would have taken a poet to commentate adequately on the play of JJ Williams. There was a speed, a litheness, a vision, a commitment in his play that song exceeded the vocabulary of most sports commentators.

JJ played in times when rugby never entered popular consciousness for most of the year.

Rugby was an amateur game, without a great fan base among ordinary people, that seemed dominated by public schools and Oxbridge.  Across the Bristol Channel from Somerset, it was different: rugby was the sport of working men, it went with images of the valleys and the sound of male voice choirs.

For a few weeks each year, names from the other side of the Severn Bridge would fill the commentary on the matches watched on our black and white television.  There was a poetry even in the team sheet: JJ and JPR  Williams, Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett.  In hushed tones there would be mention of the one who had been numbered amongst them, but played no more: Barry John.

One knew when the Welsh were doing well (and they always did well in those years), the sound from the television came like the words of a ballad: a soft telling of a story reaching a lively refrain as a red-shirted back once again crossed the line for a try.

Having turned sixty this month, it seems strange that JJ was just twelve years older than me; that those whose presence filled the cameras at the Arms Park on those early spring afternoons were not so much older than the teenagers who sat watching.

Perhaps the feeling that those encounters belonged to some other dimension; that those who stood and sang Land of my Fathers occupied a universe other than those who looked across at Barry Island on grey February mornings; was helped by the presence of Max Boyce.

Boyce was like some minstrel from medieval times in his retelling of the heroic feats of the army he followed; even those at the sharp end of Boyce’s wit still smile.  The subject of The Sunshine Home for Blind Irish Referees  can look back nearly fifty years and still maintain he was right and Boyce was wrong.

The Welsh had always so much music.  Once England supporters had sung God Save the Queen they hadn’t much else to sing.  In recent times, the adoption of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot seemed only to emphasise the paucity of music available.

Perhaps it was the music that gave Welsh rugby its poetic quality.  It is hard to watch back now the old videos of those matches and not have the strains of Cwm Rhondda echoing around the back of the mind.  When the sound of Bread of Heaven began to fill the Cardiff Arms Park on those Saturday afternoons in the 1970s, it was not hard to guess who was once again on the winning side – JJ among them.

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