JJ Williams, who died last week at the age of 72, was one of the legendary names of the Wales team of the 1970s. But he was also renowned for a broadcasting style and status that was as unique as his Test try-scoring record for the Lions, as Graham Thomas recalls.
The story goes – and was told by both – that JJ Williams once saved the international rugby career of Ray Gravell even before it had begun.
It was 1975 and the night before Gravell was to have made his debut against France in Paris, but as a man filled with torturing anxiety he woke up his roommate at 4am by rummaging around with his suitcase.
“Grav was packing his clothes back into his case and was ready to leave in the middle of the night because he couldn’t face what was to come,” says Peter Jackson, who co-wrote JJ’s autobiography.
“Everyone knew Grav was a character who generally needed a lot of reassurance, so as he placed his clothes into his suitcase and told JJ he was heading back to Mynyddygarreg, mam, and Toodles, the cat, he probably thought JJ would gently dissuade him from going.”
What he actually told him was, ‘go’. Go, clear off and let me sleep, but don’t think you’ll ever play for Wales again because no-one will pick you.
“Grav stopped packing, quietly put his things back in the wardrobe, got back into bed and turned out the light. I suppose what JJ was giving out was what these days would be called tough love,” adds Jackson.
Tough, unflinching, uncompromising, brutally honest and hugely competitive – Those were all phrases used to describe the former Wales wing and international athlete who passed away last week.
But he was all those things and a whole lot more. Any time spent in his company was always entertaining, eventful and enlivening.
I also once shared a room with JJ in Paris. It was 1999, 24 years on from his early hours conversation with Gravell. This time, there was another 4am discussion.
We were both working for BBC Wales at the time and sharing the room as colleagues before covering Graham Henry’s first season in charge of Wales that included a famous win in Paris – the first since that JJ-assisted victory in 1975.
We went out for a meal with others, got separated in a bar some time afterwards, before I got back to our room at around 2am.
Fearful of waking up JJ, I crept quietly into my bed in the dark, only to then notice there was no-one occupying the bed opposite.
Peaceful sleep came, but some two hours later, my roomie breezed in, flicked the light on, whipped off his shirt and began to do a vigorous workout of press-ups and sit-ups on the floor.
“See this body?,” he shouted as I squinted sleepily across the room. “You’ll never have a body like this when you get to my age. No chance.”
And he was right. I don’t. It may have been his way of telling me, or anyone else, they should not take their health and fitness for granted.
JJ was always an enthusiast, combative, always direct, but he was never uncaring. In fact, it was because he did care that he raised so many hackles as a pundit once his playing days were over.
For a time in the 1990s, he was public enemy number one in Pontypridd because he felt Neil Jenkins shouldn’t have been the Wales No.10. He wanted Arwel Thomas to be selected.
It wasn’t a popular opinion at Sardis Road, but then it wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be honest, heartfelt, genuine.
The consequence of this unvarnished verdict was he was given some terrible abuse as he walked past Ponty supporters to the broadcasting point at the back of the stand. None of it seemed to bother him, unduly, at least not to the point where he would change his tune in order to suit others.
The animosity even followed across the border as he was once confronted by an angry Ponty fan who appeared ready to fight him outside the Kassam Stadium in Oxford.
JJ just laughed at the red-faced aggressor, told him to grow up, and walked on.
All this was like raw meat to a starving lion for most rugby journalists during that period. JJ must have been the most called, most quoted former international of them all because he was a one-man walking headline.
What an unbelievable career JJ Williams had ❤️️
Here are just a few of his highlights 👇 pic.twitter.com/CjZs62rQac
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) October 29, 2020
When former Wales coach Kevin Bowring teetered on the brink after a disastrous 51-0 home defeat to France at Wembley in 1998, there was only one man to call to declare that, yes, push finally had come to shove.
It wasn’t Gerald Davies, JJ’s rather more restrained try-scoring partner in crime.
All this gave JJ a certain notoriety. He was the Roy Keane of noughties Welsh rugby punditry, but like Keane now, there was no artifice, no attempt to manipulate.
He was just being himself, calling it honestly as he saw it. If a Welsh player or team didn’t measure up then he felt obliged to say so, because deep down he wanted them to measure up.
He cared. As an athlete, he was meticulous and professional in his approach to succeeding and he took that approach into rugby and later his highly successful business.
The golden era of the seventies was exactly that because the standards set and expected were gold standard – and JJ just wanted those standards to be upheld.
It was the same when he declared more recently that Wales would not win the World Cup in Japan with Dan Biggar at outside-half.
It might not have been what Warren Gatland or Biggar himself wanted to hear, but then he wasn’t answering for their benefit.
Of course, BBC Wales loved the fact that JJ shot from the hip. It meant they never had to carry a gun themselves.
He was egged on and encouraged by desk-hidden BBC Wales managers. But when the shooting was over and the smoke cleared – and when the flak started being fired back in return – JJ discovered what many others have done, that those same managers had all dived for cover.
Far from covering his back, they were nowhere to be found.
By that stage, he had also discovered other battles he felt needed fighting. When the Welsh Rugby Union built their new stadium in 1998, the ex-players association were given their own room for pre and post match conviviality.
JJ had campaigned for it and also raised funds for injured former players. So, when the Union tried to take it off them – to hawk to the corporate world – JJ led the resistance. The Union backed down.
Much has been made in recent days of JJ’s role and impact on the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa – where he was truly devastating as a player and for which he paid the significant price of four months’ unpaid leave.
Nobody does that without really wanting to be there, caring enough that even a huge sacrifice in wages was a price worth paying.
A lot, too, has rightly been said about the iconic photograph of him scoring against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth, against a backdrop of black faces in the barbed wire enclosure, cheering him on his way.
When I worked on a documentary a few years ago about that tour, our three key domestic interviews were Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JJ.
Years on and Edwards and Bennett had become ambivalent about the wisdom of that tour, undertaken during the hard core years of apartheid.
JJ was less so.
Of course, he understood the politics as well as anyone else, but repentance simply wasn’t his style. Honesty was.
“I went because I wanted to go,” he said. “I wanted to test myself as a player at the very highest level open to me.
“I made the choice at the time, so what’s the point of regretting it now?”
Honest to the core – whether you liked it or not.