'He was my idol, he was my mentor'
August 30, 2013
'He was a truly remarkable man - hugely talented in everything he turned his hand to' © Getty Images
When I first started playing rugby as an 11-year-old Cliff Morgan was my idol - I too was an aspiring fly-half in those days - so I feel as if he has been with me all through my rugby life. Growing up as a Welshman in Watford he was my link with the mother country.
I saw him play once, for Wales at Twickenham in 1958. All my school-mates were cheering for the England stars, Jeff Butterfield and Peter Jackson, but I only had eyes for Cliff. It was my first ever visit to an international match and I cannot honestly remember much of the detail, only that I was cheering for Wales. The records show it was a dreary 3-3 draw, a penalty goal apiece, but at least I saw him play.
Little did I know then that he would become a friend and something of a mentor. I shall never forget driving to Cambridge University with him to make my first ever after-dinner speech. What a baptism, he was brilliant, of course, and had his audience eating out of his hand - I was on first, thank goodness, I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to follow him. Later he did me the honour of writing the foreword to my book The Decade of the Dragon and reading it last night for the first time in many years I was again struck by the sheer generosity and the care he took in crafting it.
He was a truly remarkable man - hugely talented in everything he turned his hand to. First, even though we only have very grainy Pathe News footage to go on, Cliff Morgan was obviously an extraordinary rugby player. Clips from the 1955 Lions Tour show he was the prototype they used to set-up the fly-half factory production line that produced the likes of Dai Watkins, Barry John and Phil Bennett.
Rugby League was in its hay-day in the 50s and I always remember him telling me on that car journey to Cambridge about his father going down to the end of the street in Trebanog to fend-off the League scouts - he was terrified that Cliff would be deemed a 'professional' and banned from Union if he was seen even talking to them.
But he was much more than just a rugby player. He grasped the difference between television and radio commentary better than anybody before or since - apparently castigating himself for finishing that brilliant commentary of the Gareth Edwards try with the words, 'what a score.' 'That was unnecessary,' he said, 'people could see it was a score.'
He was also one of the most effervescent characters I have ever met - one of those people who just lights up a room without even trying - even after his illness cruelly took away his voice. We were at a dinner a couple of years ago listening to a particularly tedious American speaker when he suddenly grabbed my arm, rolled his eyes, put his other hand to his throat and rasped out something unrepeatable in an exaggerated American drawl - memorable last words!
There was always a touch of mischief when Cliff was around so I also remember with great fondness setting him up for This is Your Life. I had been tasked with 'capturing' him and came up with a ruse to get him to Old Deer Park, home of London Welsh, ostensibly to record a tribute for HTV on the club's contribution to rugby in the 1970s. In reality Michael Aspel and the cameras were waiting ready to whisk us all off to the Thames Television studios in Teddington.
They almost blew it. An over zealous production assistant insisted we should send a car. 'How have HTV suddenly got money for cars?' he asked quizzically. 'Must be a big budget programme this,' and insisted on driving himself much to the chagrin of the paranoid PA. Even then they had a limo tailing him and he admitted later he was suspicious especially as the family had also been behaving 'weirdly.'
Typically, with the recording over, he decided it was time to party and we were there until midnight with Cliff at the piano leading the singing. His last words - 'And I was going to have a quiet evening.' He swore he would never trust me again.
Of all his talents - and there were many - I think his ability as a pianist was the one I envied most. He could play any tune by ear within a minute even if he had never heard it before. It certainly helped us to while away many a quiet Sunday evening in New Zealand in 1971. Cliff was covering the Lions' Tour for the BBC but he was soon almost one of the team. Sunday was always a travelling day and there was no training so a group that became known as 'The Sunday School' would meet for a sing-song and drinks when we arrived at the new hotel.
Cliff very quickly became an honorary member and decided we should have a Sunday School club tie. Twenty identical ties was a tall order but he found some grey and blue monstrosities that initially became compulsory accoutrements at weddings and now, sadly, funerals. I, and I suspect a number of others from the class of '71, will definitely be wearing mine at Cliff's.
Wales pose ahead of their clash with England at Twickenham in 1958 - (back row, l-r) Gordon Wells, Ray Prosser, Rhys Williams, John Faull, Roddy Evans, Don Devereux, Haydn Morgan; (middle row, l-r) Lloyd Williams, Cyril Davies, Malcolm Thomas, Clem Thomas, John Collins, Terry Davies; (front row, l-r) Bryn Meredith, Cliff Morgan © PA Photos
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist