JPR mixes it with the forwards
June 17, 2011
JPR Williams lined up as a flanker for Wales' clash with Australia on this day in 1978 © Getty Images
Being able to play more than one position is a common, and useful, attribute among top-class rugby players. John Smit, Matt Giteau and a number of Frenchmen have shown in recent years that even the most specialised of roles - hooker and scrum-half - can be combined with other positions.
But what remains extremely rare is the ability to switch from pack to backs, or vice-versa. One only has to remember the mortifying 40 minutes at Twickenham two years ago when Mauro Bergamasco was transformed from a world-class flanker into a fumbling novice scrum-half to realise why.
And it is 33 years ago today since an earlier, rather more logical and not entirely unsuccessful switch of roles. JPR Williams always did have something of the back-rower in his fullback play. In squad sessions and on tour he was always willing to mix it with the forwards and, as he recalled in the more recent of his two memoirs 'I had been rushing in, hitting rucks for years'.
So when Wales lost an entire backrow - Derek Quinnell, Jeff Squire and tour captain Terry Cobner - to injury before the second Test of their short tour to Australia in 1978, it made sense to draft him as an emergency open-side alongside Stuart Lane and debutant Clive Davis from Newbridge.
The afternoon of June 17, 1978 at the Sydney Cricket Ground was to prove pretty memorable for three other players remembered as Welsh all-time greats. For wing Gerald Davies it was the last of 46 matches for Wales, and his only one as captain. The try he scored, his 20th, drew him level with Gareth Edwards at the head of Wales's all-time scoring list.
Scrum-half Terry Holmes had gone on tour as presumptive number two to Brynmor Williams - who had played three Tests for the Lions the previous summer - but forced his way past his former Cardiff club-mate to win his first cap at the SCG. Once there, he was not to be displaced as first choice when fit until he went to rugby league almost a decade later.
And for prop Graham Price, it was the day his jaw was broken. It was done in the first few minutes by a punch, inflicted from behind, by Australian prop Steve Finnane. The Wallaby prop had disconcerted England in his debut series three years earlier by the contrast between his off-field demeanour - an intelligent, sophisticated man who was training to be a barrister - and his ferocity on the field. Price recalled in 2005 that the incident was still well remembered, saying: "I still get asked about that incident so often, especially every time Wales play Australia,"
His view by that time was comparatively forgiving:"It was very early in the game, before we'd really got warmed up, and I got caught by the shot. Don't think that he [Finnane] set out to do the damage he did, he was just trying to intimidate me. But he caught me coming out of a scrum with my jaw at its most vulnerable - open and gasping for air - and the photos obviously went around the world."
JPR's view was much more uncompromising, recalling 'a disgrace, an act of pure violence', a calculated off-the-ball blow struck by a prop who knew he was being outclassed - as most opponents were by Price - at the set-piece. It set the tone for an unhappy day for Wales with a series of injuries meaning that, in an era when no more than two replacements were allowed, they were reduced to 13 fit men.
By half-time JPR had reverted to fullback because the selected number 15, debutant Alun Donovan, had gone off with an injured knee and his replacement - Newport threequarter Gareth Evans - had his cheekbone fractured in the first tackle after he came on. But before that he had, Australian reporter Don Wilkey noted, produced his best display of the tour.
Wales scored two tries to one - Gerald Davies and the debutant Holmes crossing while that magnificent No.8 Mark Loane scored for Australia - but were undone, as they had been in the first Test at Brisbane, by the kicking of Wallaby outside-half Paul McLean. He added 12 points to the 14 he had scored in Australia's 18-8 win at Brisbane - three penalties plus a decisive drop-goal that, JPR recalled 'was awarded although it was obviously three or four yards wide of the post'.
Australia, still regarded as a second-class power, were delighted with a 19-17 win that sealed a 2-0 series victory over the reigning European champions, a team who had recently recorded an unprecedented third consecutive Triple Crown and their second Grand Slam in three seasons. Wales, and in particular tour manager Clive Rowlands, were less impressed. Rowlands told the post-match banquet: "One of my players is in a hospital bed tonight with a double fracture of the jaw. If we are rugby people and condone thuggery, then I don't want any part of it."
Finnane did not play for Australia again, and has written since that the infamy attached to his name effectively had him drummed out of international rugby. His career as a barrister has, though, clearly been a successful one. The property pages of the Australian press recently recorded that he had sold his house for $A2.1m (£1.37m).
Price, by contrast, was to win 22 more Welsh caps and two more complete series - eight Tests in all - for the Lions and is ranked as one of the finest ever Wales props. Nor is there any doubt about JPR's standing among fullbacks, but alongside the 62 international jerseys he wore with a number 15 on the back - 54 for Wales and another eight for the Lions - he leaves little doubt which is one of his favourites, the single number seven shirt that he wore on a brutal afternoon 33 years ago in Sydney.
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