Obituary: John Gwilliam, rugby player

John Albert Gwilliam – Welsh rugby captain and teacher. Born: 28 February, 1923. Died: 21 December, 2016, aged 93.

John Albert Gwilliam – Welsh rugby captain and teacher. Born: 28 February, 1923. Died: 21 December, 2016, aged 93.

John Gwilliam, who has died two months short of his 94th birthday, was one of the greatest Welsh rugby union captains – losing just three times in his 13 games as skipper and twice leading the Red Dragons to Grand Slams in the old Five Nations.

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But what really helped him stand out was the fact that the majority of his caps as captain came when he was playing his rugby well away from South Wales, for Edinburgh Wanderers.

This came during a three-year spell on the teaching staff at Glenalmond College. Back then, the big Edinburgh clubs – Accies, Heriot’s, Watsonians etc were “closed” clubs; to play for them you had to be either a former pupil or a teacher at the relevant school. As a “foreign” player, in Scotland, Gwilliam’s best chance of top-flight rugby was with Wanderers, then, as today, as Murrayfield Wanderers, tenants of the SRU and playing home games at Murrayfield.

Pontypridd-born Gwilliam won Welsh schoolboy caps while at Monmouth School. From there he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1941; but, a year later, he was commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment, seeing active service in Europe. On demob, he returned to South Wales to play for Newport, prior to returning to Cambridge to complete his degree, in 1947.

He won his “Blue” in the victorious Cambridge XV of 1947, before suffering defeat when winning his second “Blue” the following year. By then, he was a full Welsh internationalist, having won the first of his 23 caps in a victory over the touring Australians, in Cardiff, in December, 1947.

This came as a second row, but, by 1950, by which time he had left Cambridge and started teaching at Glenalmond, he had switched to number eight, where he would win 18 of his 23 caps. He became Wales’s 59th captain for the Calcutta Cup match in 1950, being appointed on the day before the game, when Bleddyn Williams had to drop out through injury.

Gwilliam’s own recollections of his appointment makes interesting reading. He said: “A senior Welsh RU official came over to me and said: ‘Unfortunately Bleddyn cannot play so we are making you captain tomorrow. You are quite free to play your own game, but don’t hold the ball in the back row of the scrum, don’t throw out any of those long passes and don’t flip the ball back from the line out’. These provisos contained almost all my limited ideas on winning a rugby match at the time.”

It worked, however, as Wales achieved their first Grand Slam since 1911, and of the 18 players they used during the Five Nations, 14 were selected for the 1950 British Lions touring side to visit Australia and New Zealand. Gwilliam was one of the four who stayed home – he was unable to obtain release from his teaching duties at Glenalmond and thus, unable to join club-mate Graham Budge of Wanderers on the tour. It was felt, at the time, had he been available, Gwilliam would have been appointed Lions’ captain for the trip.

In 1951 his intimate knowledge of Murrayfield did him little good as, in one of the greatest upsets in rugby union history, an untried Scottish team beat Gwilliam’s star-studded Welsh visitors, who fielded 11 Lions, 19-0 in what has gone down in history as “Peter Kininmonth’s match”.

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So, no back-to-back Grand Slams for Wales, but in 1952 Gwilliam led them to a second clean sweep of the Five Nations.

The following season, he left Glenalmond and Wanderers for Bromsgrove School and Gloucester. While at Kingsholm, he became the first Gloucester player to lead his national side.

He had lost the Welsh captaincy to Bleddyn Williams by the time he played in the side which beat the All Blacks in 1953, the last time Wales have beaten the New Zealanders and, after losing his place for Wales, he hung up his boots in 1955. He had played for Wales, the Barbarians, Newport, Cambridge University, Edinburgh Wanderers, Gloucester, Llanelli, Wasps and London Welsh.

Gwilliam had a long and distinguished career in teaching. From Bromsgrove, he went on to be Head of Lower School at Dulwich College, before, in 1963, he was appointed headmaster at Birkenhead School, a post he filled for 25 years until his retirement in 1988.

He then moved to spend his last years living in Llanfairfechan, in Gwynedd, before declining health saw him move into a nursing home in Deganwy, overlooking Conwy Bay.

Gwilliam was inducted in the Welsh Sporting Hall of Fame in 2005. He also wrote a well-received book “Rugby Football Tactics”.

In 1949 he married Pegi Lloyd George. The couple had five children, David, who died, aged 61, in 2014 and Peter, Philip, Catherine and Rhiannon, who survive him.


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