Welsh rugby mourns the loss of another iconic figure from the 1970s with the passing of JPR Williams at the age of 74. The full-back, renowned for his contributions to the game, earned 55 caps for Wales and participated in eight Test matches for the British & Irish Lions. JPR played a crucial role in the Wales team that achieved three Five Nations grand slams within an impressive eight-season span from 1971 to 1978.
Even after fifty years, the initials “JPR” remain synonymous with rugby greatness on a global scale. Notably, only the most dedicated fans were aware that these initials represented John Peter Rhys, as the broader public recognized him more for his distinctive sideburns, rolled-down socks, and uncompromising playing style. His on-field demeanor complemented the remarkable playmaking abilities of esteemed teammates like Barry John, Gareth Edwards, and Phil Bennett.
In addition to leading Wales in five matches, JPR Williams earned recognition for reshaping the perception of full-backs in rugby. Known for his strength, directness, commitment, and athleticism, he received his first cap for Wales at the age of 19 in 1969 and became the starting Lions Test full-back in New Zealand just two years later. His pivotal role in the Lions’ historic series victory included dropping a crucial long-range goal in the fourth Test, which concluded in a 14-14 draw.
Williams also toured South Africa in 1974 but opted out of the 1977 New Zealand tour, following advice to prioritize his “other” career as an orthopaedic surgeon. At the club level, he played for both London Welsh and Bridgend, enduring a notorious face stamp by All Black John Ashworth in 1978. Despite a severe cheek wound that required 30 stitches, administered on the touchline by his father, Williams returned to the game and completed the match. Notably, he boasted an impressive record against England, remaining unbeaten in 10 Tests for Wales against them and scoring five tries.
In 1981, Williams retired from international rugby to focus on his career as a surgeon but continued to play for Tondu for several years. A man of diverse talents, he excelled as a tennis player in his youth, winning the 1966 British junior title at Wimbledon by defeating David Lloyd in the final. Williams transitioned to rugby from tennis as the amateur sport provided him with opportunities to advance his medical career as an orthopaedic surgeon.
Tributes for the man universally known as JPR, a distinction made necessary to differentiate him from his Wales and Lions teammate JJ Williams, began pouring in. His former club, Bridgend Ravens, expressed their devastation in a social media statement, acknowledging JPR as one of Bridgend’s most decorated players and a global rugby icon. The club highlighted his recent role as club president and extended condolences to JPR’s family and friends during this somber period.
The Barbarians, with whom JPR played in the iconic 1973 game against New Zealand in Cardiff, described him as someone who will always hold a special place in the hearts and history of their club. Bill Beaumont, JPR’s former Lions captain and the current chairman of World Rugby, offered a heartfelt tribute, acknowledging the loss of a true giant in the game and a legendary figure for Wales and the Lions during an extraordinary era in Welsh rugby.
A statement from the Williams family confirmed JPR’s peaceful passing at the University Hospital of Wales. The family shared that he passed away surrounded by his loving wife and four children after bravely battling bacterial meningitis during a short illness. At this challenging time, the family requested privacy to grieve their loss.