When the great JPR Williams body-checked Jean-Francois Gourdon into touch to ensure a Welsh Grand Slam in 1976, he stood over the France wing with his fists clenched and voice roaring in triumph. The full-back, who was a key figure in the famous, star-studded British and Irish Lions teams that conquered New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa three years later, was and still is feted for his dramatic intervention.
Gourdon seemed certain to score in a corner of Cardiff Arms Park and deny Wales victory when Williams, pictured below, arrived on the scene. Gourdon bounced off the former British Junior tennis champion and ended up sprawled three metres in touch. Nobody was more committed than JPR, who never lost against old enemy England during the ‘Golden Era’ when the likes of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gerald and Mervyn Davies, JJ Williams, Graham Price and Bobby Windsor strutted their stuff.
With his trademark sideburns, long hair and sometimes wearing a headband, JPR was one of the most recognised and acclaimed figures in world rugby. Characters like him abounded in the amateur days. The number has dwindled in the professional era but Wales might have unearthed a modern-day version in Liam Williams.
The Scarlets full-back/wing isn’t related to JPR but he possesses passion, panache and an ability to light up a match with his daring and ability to leave would-be tacklers trailing in his wake.
Nicknamed “Sanjay”, after a television character, he’s the self-styled “bomb defuser” with a penchant for catching every up-and-under the opposition throw at him. JPR used to relish dealing with “bombs” and so does the former scaffolder.
“Sanjay” isn’t shy when it comes to attempting to stop attackers scoring tries and the JPR-like shoulder-charge that prevented South Africa wing Cornal Hendricks touching down in the corner in Nelspruit last summer would have been hailed during the 1970s. Instead it was 2014 and tackling without using the hands had been outlawed. English referee Wayne Barnes awarded a penalty try for Morne Steyn to convert to give the Springboks a fortunate 31-30 victory after trailing by 13 points with eight minutes remaining.
If it had taken place in JPR’s era, Liam Williams would have been hailed as the player who ensured Wales beat the Boks on South African soil for the first time in more than 100 years of combat. Instead, he was lambasted by some and bore the brunt of tirades on social media.
Like JPR, Liam Williams isn’t big but he punches above his weight and is as brave and tigerish as they come. He’s a late developer, so to speak. Although he had played for Wales Under-20s at the Junior World Championship (JWC) in Italy, he hadn’t been picked up by his Swansea-based home region Ospreys and was working as a scaffolder and playing rugby for his local club Waunarlwydd.
That JWC tournament featured the most harrowing experience of his career when New Zealand, orchestrated by Welsh-qualified stand-off Gareth Anscombe – currently to be found in Wales’ Six Nations squad after leaving Super 15 champions Chiefs for Cardiff – put a record 92 points on Liam Williams and company.
“That was one of the worst days of my life. The changing room after was a pretty dark place and I just sat there for half an hour with my head in my hands,” says Liam Williams. “My phone was ringing with calls from back home but I did not want to speak to anyone. New Zealand were class and there was not a lot you could do about it.
“At that point I never thought the Scarlets would sign me, let alone six months later I’d be involved in a full Wales squad. Looking back, the Under-20s World Cup was a good experience. I was lucky to be involved in all five of the games. In my younger days when I was in the under-15s and 16s I did not get picked up at all by any Swansea sides.
“I did get a phone call when I was playing with Waunarlwydd and I went down to have a chat with Swansea RFC. Around the same time Llanelli RFC got in touch as well. I picked Llanelli because I thought I would have more chance of getting in the Scarlets regional team, and it’s worked out fantastically.”
Swansea-born and bred, he developed a head for heights while working 12-hour shifts at Margam steelworks, Port Talbot. He enjoyed the job, but after being elevated to the Wales squad at the tender age of 20, after just eight starts in pro rugby, he hasn’t had any regrets about changing careers.
“After leaving Gowerton Comprehensive School, I worked in Margam steelworks for three years and did my apprenticeship there, qualifying as a full-time scaffolder,” says Williams, now 23.
“It was dirty and hard work but it was good and I was happy doing my course. I’m still in touch with my mates there and my father and brother were also scaffolders there. I enjoyed it but I’m playing rugby now so I hope I won’t be going back, at least until my rugby career is over.”
Williams underlined his potential on the pitch by scoring for the Scarlets in their Heineken Cup win over Northampton in the wake of the 2011 World Cup and hasn’t looked back since.
“He’s very physical, has a high skill-set and he reminds me of JPR Williams in terms of his bravery,” says former Wales captain and ex-Scarlets coach Nigel Davies.
Williams favours the full-back position, however 2013 Lions hero Leigh Halfpenny is in his way and Williams might have to be content with a place on the wing, with North and Alex Cuthbert under pressure from coach Warren Gatland following some disappointing international performances in recent months.
“Leigh’s world class, one of the best fifteens playing the game today. He can kick out of hand, he can run, he can goal-kick, he is good under the high ball — there isn’t much he can’t do,” says Williams.
The pair could be a dangerous combination in the back three with their ability to rotate positions in a Wales team which is gearing up to win a fifth Six Nations title in 11 years
Fri 6 Feb 8.05pm ENGLAND, Millennium Stadium
Sun 15 Feb 3pm, SCOTLAND, Murrayfield
Sat 28 Feb 5pm, FRANCE, Stade de France
Sat 14 Mar 2.30pm, IRELAND, Millennium Stadium
Sat 21 Mar 12.30pm, ITALY, Stadio Olimpico