The unique Dr Jack
July 20, 2012
Dr Jack Matthews in action for Wales © PA Photos
It is exceptionally hard, when your parents have had you christened John, to achieve the supreme Welsh popular tribute of being known purely by your forename. There are just too many of them. But, with the addition of a professional title, Jack Matthews, who has just died at the age of 92, made it.
For the last 65 years or so, nobody in Wales has needed any further explanation as to the identity of Dr Jack.
The modern fan may well look at the statistics, a mere 17 caps for Wales, and wonder what all the fuss was. That's the sort of total you might accumulate nowadays by a year or so on the fringe of the team, with a fair number of those appearances as a replacement.
These, though, were very different times. Jack had to wait more than eight years between his first Final Trial, as a Bridgend schoolboy in the last postwar season and his first full cap, in the Wales XV that resumed peacetime Six Nations conflict against England at a bomb damaged Arms Park in January 1947. He is, incidentally, the final survivor of that team.
That first trial may have been a little premature. But there is every possibility that, without the war, he might have played for Wales from 1940 or 1941 onwards. Had he been granted the extra five or six seasons denied to him he might easily have challenged Dickie Owen's then all-time Welsh record of 35 caps.
Instead he had to wait until he was 26 to play for Wales, and those 17 caps came out of a possible total of 21 across five seasons. Posterity may place him just this side of the line that divides the great from the merely very, very good, but there is no doubt that he was good by any standard short of that of the game's true immortals.
Jack was a worthily forceful link in Wales's fine traditional of fine, straight-running, hard-tackling centres - a successor to Claude Davey and forerunner of Ray Gravell, Scott Gibbs and Jamie Roberts.
He had a vigorous physicality that also in his youth found an outlet in the boxing ring, precipitating him on one occasion into a wartime interservices bout with an Italian-American GI later better known as Rocky Marciano. No verdict was recorded, but Jack did better than 28 of Rocky's 49 subsequent professional opponents by lasting the full four rounds.
His type of centre is of course never more effective than when paired with a creative partner. Few partnerships have been more effective on the field than his pairing for club, country and Lions with Bleddyn Williams.
Yet, while we remember them as the classic complementary centre pairing, the Welsh selectors of their time were not always so convinced, playing them together on only a handful of occasions. Jack's past as a schoolboy sprint champion meant that he was even on occasion picked on the wing, an exile he did not appreciate.
It was one of those games, against England at Twickenham in 1948, that earned him a reputation as a fallible handler. He was still unhappy about that on the last occasion I met him, roughly 60 years later, arguing that there was little he could do with a Billy Cleaver pass that struck him in his ear.
There were, though, happier days for Wales. He played all four games in the Grand Slam year of 1950 and the following season, his last, lit up the 23-5 hammering of England at Swansea with two tries and a devastating early tackle on opposite number Lionel Oakley, playing his first and last game for England.
He retired from international rugby at the end of the season, but was summoned to Twickenham the following season when Bleddyn Williams was injured. Arriving after a ghastly overnight journey in a heaving train, he was informed that the selectors had changed their mind and would after all be fielding travelling reserve Alun Thomas. Those within earshot of the gents toilet nearest the Welsh changing room were shortly afterwards treated to the sound of Dr Jack delivering a world-class upbraiding to chairman of selectors Vince Griffiths, making it very clear that no future summons to the national colours would be answered.
It is possible that the best of Jack and Bleddyn was seen for the Lions and in club rugby for Cardiff. On the 1950 tour of Australia and New Zealand Jack played all six tests and left a glowing reputation among the kiwis, a nation with a sophisticated appreciation of hard centres.
Jack was also a key figure in the creation of one of the greatest of all club sides, the Cardiff team who dominated the immediate postwar years in Wales. As the first postwar captain, he laid down the rule that they should play the open, attacking rugby that made them not only the most formidable force but the greatest drawcard in the game. Full fruition was reached under his successor Haydn Tanner, but it was Jack who created the blueprint. It was with Cardiff that he also recorded one of the last and most cherished triumphs of his career as a member of the team that beat the All Blacks in 1953.
But he continued to live a full life after retirement - not least as a medical practitioner whose sporting connections meant that he officiated for the British Boxing Board of Control, the Welsh Rugby Union and the 1980 Lions team in South Africa.
Nor did retirement see an end to a remarkable friendship with Bleddyn. It lasted the best part of 70 years, found them as octogenerians still seated together regularly in the bar at the Cardiff Athletic club or in the back row of the Millennium Stadium press box, and was broken only by Bleddyn's death three years ago this month. Centre pairings come no better or more durable than that.
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