Monday, 6 July 2009

Uncle Bleddyn

"The very sight of a rugby ball was like a feast to a starving man".

When I was 10, I came home from school one day with a homework assignment. I had to write a piece on a famous Cardiffian. The second the task entered my ear drums, and the words diffused into my brain, I knew who I was going to write about. There was only one famous Cardiffian of any note or importance whatsoever as far as I was concerned. And that was Bleddyn Williams, ex-Wales, British Lions and Cardiff RFC rugby legend.

Wales lost one of its true sporting heroes on the 6th July 2009, when Bleddyn sadly passed away.

To say the term 'legend' is brandished around like a cliche, is in itself a cliche now. But in Bleddyn, Wales did really claim a gem, a sporting great whose name was mentioned in high regard across the rugby world, let alone in little old Wales. Bleddyn's rugby world couldn't be more different from the modern sport of Rugby Union. It was, as he used to say himself, a different world.

Regarded as one of the finest players ever, his achievements were great. From humble beginnings in Taffs Well, one of eight brothers, he went on to captain Wales, captain the British Lions, gaining himself a superb reputation for being the finest centre-threequarter in the game.

But he was my uncle. When I was growing up, Uncle Bleddyn had a mythical iconic status. A sport-obsessed kid, particularly rugby (I used to bring my rugby ball to bed with me after all), he quickly became my hero. I was told countless times by my Nan, by my father, by just about everyone, of the legend that was: Uncle Bleddyn. Nan would speak his name in the same regard as some kind of humble saint. At a time when Wales were languishing at the bottom of the rugby elite, Bleddyn's status only seemed more infallible, more awe inspiring. I thought he was wonderful, the grandfathery figure we seemed to lack in our family. He also drove a beautiful jaguar car and to this day I have always wanted one. Yet to meet him, such was his modesty, you would never imagine this softly spoken, articulate great uncle was such a world renown icon.

Uncle Bleddyn at a recent Cardiff match.

We would see Bleddyn at all the home Cardiff RFC matches, always there for every match at Cardiff Arms Park. Our seats were a few rows away from him and he rarely missed a game. I sat next to him as we watched Wales play France in the 2009 championship on a big screen at a Cardiff rugby club. Before the match started there was cricket on the TV, and he told me about when he used to play. There seems little he couldn't try his hand at.
When Wales went on to lose the rugby match, he turned to me and said, "Well dear you were right" He chuckled; I had claimed all throughout the match that Wales would lose. Whilst I was rather struggling to hide my disappointment, Bleddyn was pragmatic and as cool as a cucumber. But when Wales had scored a lovely try in the first half, his face had sparkled, and he had clapped with joy. I think I saw first hand the pure love he had for the game, the spark that fueled the passion. It was exactly his meaning when he had once written that after he had retired from the sport; "The very sight of a rugby ball was like a feast to a starving man". What an evocative image.

I have such fond memories of visiting with my family, our Uncle Bleddyn and his fabulous wife Aunty Vi in Cardigan. Aunty Vi, whom I secretly aspired to be, would never fail to entertain me with tales of Bleddyn's various experiences and friends, such as Richard Burton and Stanley Baker. There was one particular story I loved, of Richard bringing Liz Taylor to Cardiff so that he could watch the rugby, and Aunty Vi being left to entertain Liz for the afternoon. Or Sean Connery knocking on the Baker's home whilst they were there. To an impressionable child, this was glamourous brilliance. It was all part of the course for Bleddyn naturally, who would just sit back and let Aunty Vi regale us all, as if it was nothing at all. And let us not forget his brave service in the RAF during WWII, flying beyond enemy lines in true Kenneth More style. Sometimes you wondered if Bleddyn's life was, indeed, a film.

What made it more incredible for me was how many other people adored him. Complete strangers would strike up conversations by the very mention of his name. Faces would light up, eyes would twinkle. Bleddyn was special. Bleddyn made people happy.

There was an occasion when my father had taken me to see Wales play South Africa at the old National Stadium. Needless to say, Wales lost, and as we drudged out of the stadium and into the wet, dreary Cardiff night (Cardiff is always more gray after Wales lose. No matter what the weather), this pleasant elderly chap began chatting to us about the match. It didn't take him long to mention years gone by. "We need players with flair. We need class again. We need...another Bleddyn Williams." I looked at my dad excitedly at his very mentioning of the name and my dad smirked knowingly but said nothing as the man continued. "...ahh...there's only ever one Bleddyn Williams." The old man beamed. "He could beat a man! He could side-step off both sides!"
I'll never forget the sheer joy on this chap's face or that little conversation. It symbolised how much rugby means to us Welsh, how much pleasure we get, and especially, how Bleddyn lit up people's lives and gave them such wonderful memories.

In May 2009, we attended a WRU event for players at the Millennium Stadium. It was a lovely day, an occasion to celebrate players past and present. As we were leaving, we said our goodbyes and I looked back at Uncle Bleddyn, stood on the Millennium Stadium pitch wistfully. People were chatting happily, kids were playing rugby on the grass. The big screen was playing great Welsh tries from over the years, the sounds of the crowds' joy on the recordings ringing in our ears. The atmosphere was content, of a swell of pride - this was what sport was all about. Friends, family and enjoying yourself. And there was Bleddyn, amongst it all, cutting a dignified figure surveying all that was around him.
My sister and I were worried about leaving him alone but we need not have worried. Just that moment, he was suddenly surrounded by people, old friends, more fans, beaming at him, inviting him over to their groups. It seemed to sum up the man, a fitting memory of him. Ever popular, approachable and pleased to chat to people. He brought so much joy and pride to so many. And yet was always so modest about his achievements, always eger to stress how much rugby had given him. So many friends made, and great memories he himself had gained. And that is what I associate rugby with.

We have lost someone special, and he will be so dearly missed. With every rugby match I watch or attend I feel close to family members sadly departed, and Bleddyn left a lasting impression, that will remain with us all - even to those who never knew or met him. Rugby will always be a part of our families lives, and his name will always be synonymous with the sport. But I will remember him not just as a rugby legend, but as a true gentleman. Thank you Uncle Bleddyn.

BBC tribute
Wonderful article
Telegraph Obituary