Obituary: JPR — a player with flair, and dedicated doctor

JPR Williams reacts as she is introduced to the Centre Court crowd before the start of play at...
JPR Williams reacts as she is introduced to the Centre Court crowd before the start of play at Wimbledon on July 8, 2023. Photo: Getty Images
Rugby player, doctor


John Peter Rhys Williams — known to every rugby fan as JPR — brought flair and bravura to what was a stolid sport, enduring himself to devotees the world over in the process.

At a time when forwards dominated and the ball going past the first five was a rare event, Williams and his Welsh contemporaries played with fearlessness and a swashbuckling attacking style, which was epitomised by the fullback with the flowing locks and socks around his ankles.

In the modern game he would have been a megastar, but even in his heyday spectators knew that they were witnessing a special talent when Williams took to the pitch.

Born near Bridgend in 1949, Williams was also a formidable tennis player, winning the British junior title in 1966.

His focus then shifted to rugby, and Williams won the first of his 55 caps for Wales in 1969, aged just 19.

The young fullback was one of many beneficiaries of a sea-change in Welsh rugby, which had completely revamped its scouting and coaching system after its first overseas tour, to South Africa, where Wales had suffered what was then its record test defeat.

Wales went on to dominate northern hemisphere rugby in the 1970s, winning three Five Nations grand slams (in 1971, ’76 and ’78). That formidable record came with some remarkable records for Williams, such as the fact that in 10 tests against England, he was never on the losing side.

Williams introduced himself to New Zealand fans with typical flourish when picked for the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand. It was Williams who cemented a 2-1 series triumph for his side by dropping a goal in the fourth test, helping secure a 14-14 draw.

Williams became "JPR" in 1973 to distinguish him from Wales team-mate John J.J. William, and the moniker quickly became universally used.

That year Williams also starred for the Barbarians in their unforgettable 23-11 victory over New Zealand, touching down in a game chiefly remembered for Sir Gareth Edwards’ spectacular touchdown that completed a breathtaking length-of-the-field move.

He was equally as prominent on the 1974 South Africa tour, which the Lions took with three wins and a draw.

Rugby was still a defiantly amateur sport and Williams achieved all he did on the field while also studying for a medical degree. He qualified as a physician in 1973 and as a surgeon in 1980, before in 1986 becoming a consultant in trauma and orthopaedic surgery at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend.

"I used to say that I spent half my life breaking bones on the rugby field, then the other half putting them back together in the operating theatre," he wrote in his 2007 book, JPR: Given The Breaks — My Life In Rugby.

Williams missed out on the 1977 Lions tour to New Zealand, having been told by his superiors that he needed to focus on his medical career.

Williams’ international rugby career ended in 1981 but his playing days did not: he played for Bridgend into the 1990s, and was still playing socially until finally retiring in 2003.

Williams died on January 8, aged 74.

World Rugby posted on X: "One of the greatest players the game has ever seen. JPR Williams leaves behind an incredible legacy." — Agencies