There are many reasons for us to give thanks for Peter Jackson’s mastery of the written word. Over the past few years he’s been one of a very few journalists who’ve dared to tell the truth about the damaging war which waged within Welsh rugby; a war which was largely invisible to the Rugby Mad Welsh Public™.
J J Williams’ new autobiography provides another reason to be thankful for Jacko’s input. Without Peter’s colourful chapter prefaces, this book probably wouldn’t stand out from the other bland rugby volumes which pack the shelves of Welsh bookshops at this time of year.
This isn’t a book about rugby. Well, not the sport of Professional Rugby which we’re now familiar with. This is a story from another age altogether.
It would be an interesting experiment to go out onto the streets of any Welsh town and ask someone under the age of 40 whether they could name a player from the second Golden Age of Welsh rugby (the 1970s, in case you’re asking).
They might be able to name Gareth, Phil, Barry, Gerald, JPR, and then maybe JJ, but after that….?
Like his illustrious contemporaries, JJ’s story is that of a young man from a South Wales industrial village who took his innate talent (in JJ’s case, his pace) and grafted his way to the very top of world rugby.
Let’s not forget, JJ is a member of perhaps the most select group of sportsmen in history: a Welshman who has beaten New Zealand at rugby. He may not have done it with the British Lions as JPR, Barry, Gareth and Gerald did, but he was on the pitch at Stradey Park on that famous Wednesday afternoon in 1972 when Llanelli beat the All Blacks under the tutelage of coaching genius Carwyn James.
JJ went on to enjoy a glittering career in the 1970s, winning Grand Slams with Wales and a Lions tour to South Africa. He broke scoring records for fun.
But in spite of all of this success, there’s a clear sense of injustice between the lines in JJ’s story.
As you probably know, we’ve never been the biggest fans of the Welsh Rugby Union here at Gwlad, and some of the tales of tight-fistedness and bloody-mindedness on the part of our beloved rugby administrators laid out in JJ’s book still ring true. To this day, self-interest, corruption and greed have not been eradicated from the top echelons of our game and its hangers-on in the media.
Nowadays, if our top professionals doesn’t like the way they’ve been treated, they can ply their trade elsewhere, whether in England, France or further afield. In JJ’s day, that option wasn’t there.
Don’t forget, these men had day jobs to hold down; they didn’t make their living from rugby. Some of them found it very difficult to make ends meet.
Although they now admit to having made a modest amount on the sly, back in the “amateur era”, woe betide them if the Union found out. The penny-pinching blazers in Westgate Street were forever questioning mileages on expenses claims and even the cost of players’ families attending post-match events.
There’s no doubting the magnitude of JJ’s achievements, but when you read his recollections of those glorious years, one can’t help but note an underlying sense of injustice; perhaps a resentment of what he felt was a greater degree of success and recognition for his peers.
Chippy? Maybe. Many of the things he has to say about the modern game are bang on: the focus on power over skill, for example. The handing out of caps for meaningless games. The prioritisation of profit over development of the grassroots. When you think about it that way, perhaps it’s not so silly to be sentimental about the 70s.