By Rob Cole
Bridgend RFC legend Gareth Williams will be remembered in a special match at the Brewery Field on Friday night.
The former Wales and British & Irish Lions forward died in May this year after a long, brave battle against the debilitating disease, Multiple System Atrophy. He was only 63.
But while ‘Sam’, as he was known throughout the rugby playing world, may no longer be with us, his legacy lives on through his children, who have set an ambitious £100,000 target to raise money to help others who find themselves in the same position as their beloved father.
The marathon efforts of two of his daughters, Nia and Angharad, have already helped to raise £23,000 and now his son, Mark, is masterminding two big rugby events this month.
The great David Campese will be joined by Jamie Roberts at a Welsh Charity Vets ‘Legends Luncheon’ at the Park House, Cardiff on 9 November (tickets £55 each) on the eve of the game against Australia, while later that same day there will be a series of special events at the Brewery Field, Bridgend.
A great evening of rugby nostalgia, with all the proceeds going to the MSA charity, will begin with a question and answer session with the Bridgend team that took on the mighty All Blacks 40 years ago.
After that, a Gareth Williams XV, featuring golden Welsh rugby greats such as Colin Charvis, Allan Bateman, Peter Rogers, Jamie Ringer and World Rugby Sevens winning skipper Lee Beach, will take on some of Wales’ World Deaf World Cup winners who will be part of a Home Nations Deaf XV.
“We’ve had an incredible uptake for both events and Bridgend RFC have been magnificent in both their support and generosity. They have given us the venue for free, the caterers have given us free food and the former Lion Steve Boyle chipped in with £400 to help pay for kit,” said Mark.
“All the players who were in the side with Dad that met New Zealand on 13 December, 1978, have been invited to join in the celebration and we have some extra special raffle prizes. A Bridgend cap has been created with the names of all the players from the game and we will be putting one of them up for grabs for the fans.
“Rupert Moon is compering the lunch with Campo and Jamie and I’m not sure many of those sitting down to lunch are going to make it to the Brewery Field! But what a day it is going to be for everyone involved and it shows to all of Dad’s family just how well thought of he was.”
Mark is currently busy mailing out medals designed on the Grogg made of his father to those people who took part in a Virtual 10K that helped to raise nearly £3,000. Some people swam, others walked, while some ran and cycled. “We just asked people to do 10K in any style they wanted to and to raise some money for the MSA Trust. It was another amazing response,” added Mark.
All five children Matthew, Mark, Claire, Angharad and Nia, have continued the fight against MSA since they lost their father. Just as he fought to the last against the disease, they are determined to help other people and families who experienced similar problems.
“We are all determined to build on Dad’s legacy. It was hard seeing him deteriorate as he did, and devastating to lose him, but his spirit has given us all the determination to continue the fight. We’d all love to help anyone else who finds themselves in his position in the future,” added Mark.
“I’d like to say a special thank you to the British & Irish Lions for the help and support they gave to Dad during his illness. They were phenomenal.
“It was also fantastic to see his face when his Lions cap arrived the day before he actually passed away. He was incredibly proud to have played for the Lions and that was perhaps the final seal of approval on his amazing life.”
His Lions cap number has been used in all the fund-raising activities, ‘Sam571’, and that number drives on the family. Angharad will be in the London Marathon field next year continuing her fund raising, while Nia has booked in to the Paris Marathon. Mark is still considering his running options!
“Dad was just the strongest person. The diagnosis came in November, 2012, after many years with various symptoms. He’d been bed-bound since January, 2017, but he fought it all the way because that’s the type of person he was — a fighter,” said Nia.
“Every day he woke with a smile and he was never anything but good-natured. He was an inspiration and we are all so proud to have had him as our Dad.”
After leaving Bridgend Grammar School, ‘Sam’ headed to Cardiff College of Education before joining his home town club. A highly mobile and skilful player at No 8 or No 7, he played for the Lions while still an uncapped player and became a legendary figure at the Brewery Field over almost a decade.
He played in four consecutive Schweppes Cup finals for Bridgend between 1979-1982 and helped the Ravens triumph in the first two. He scored a try in the 15-9 win over Swansea in 1980 and was named the Lloyd Lewis Award winner as the man of the match.
Bridgend won the Western Mail Championship in the 1980/81 season and he then featured in the 12-9 win over the touring Wallabies at the Brewery Field in October, 1981. Three years earlier he had been in the Bridgend side beaten 17-6 by the All Blacks. He played for Wales B against France in 1978, 1979 and 1980 and toured with Wales B in the USA in 1980.
It was on that tour that he received the call to join up with the Lions in South Africa following the unfortunate injury to fellow Welshman Stuart Lane in the opening game of the tour. He played in the back row in six tour games and scored tries against South African Country and Griqualand West. The Lions won all six matches in which he played and he described that tour as “my greatest rugby memory.”
His Welsh international cap followed in the centenary season of the WRU when he played in the game against the All Blacks in Cardiff in November of the same year. He then won four more caps up to 1982.
Rugby coursed through the blood of the Williams family as Gareth’s brother, Owain, also won a Welsh cap against Namibia on a tour to Southern Africa in 1990. Owain’s son, Teddy, has already played for Wales Under 18 and Cardiff Blues A, and looks like extending the international honours within the Williams family.