John Taylor
Rugby owes debt of gratitude to pioneer Ray Williams
John Taylor
October 29, 2014
Ray Williams, left, at the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony at Twickenham in 1991 with Russell Thomas and Prince Edward © Getty Images

Most modern rugby players will not know the name Ray Williams but all those now making an excellent living from the game should be eternally grateful to him because he was the man who started the process that would eventually lead to the game becoming professional.

Yesterday he received the IRB's highest honour, the Vernon Pugh Award for Distinguished Service, something few would have foreseen when he was appointed 'National Coaching Organiser' by the Welsh Rugby Union in 1967. It was hugely controversial - the English, in particular, believed this was a step too far.

They saw it as an erosion of the very principles of rugby. As bye-law one stated "Rugby is an amateur game" and that was something to be protected at all costs. It had caused the rift with the Northern Union in the 1890s that led to the formation of Rugby League and for more than a century - right through to 1995 when the game officially became "open" (they still could not bring themselves to use the word "professional") that was the most important law in the book.

Williams was the very first person in the world to be paid for anything to do with actually playing the game. Before him only the "Secretary" (CEO) of the National Rugby Unions, the 'Treasurer' and their support staff were actually employed. Everything else was administered by committees on a purely voluntary basis.

He knew he had to tread carefully even in revolutionary Wales - where the miners had also demanded payment for missing shifts in the early days but were bought-off with 'boot money' instead of leaving the Union - as was shown in his first address to the AGM of the WRU shortly after being appointed. "I am not naïve enough to think that everyone in this gathering is in favour of coaching," he said. "You are not certain what it involves and regard change with great caution. My job will be to convince you that coaching is in the best interests of the game - I can assure you I shall pursue that task with great vigour!

"My great advantage is that although some of you may not be 100% for coaching - all of you are 100% for rugby football - this is the basic from which I shall work." Churchill would have been proud.

It all sounds terribly old fashioned now but it demonstrates how far the game has developed in the last 20 years. Although there was a huge amount of shamateurism in the 80s and early 90s the guiding principle in England, Scotland and Ireland was still that rugby should be a recreational sport and that amateurism was of fundamental importance even if it held back the development of players and the game itself. It took a Welsh barrister, Vernon Pugh, to persuade the IRB that this was unsustainable.

The appointment of Williams was the first step on that road. Ironically, although he is a true Welshman (he had a final trial but a certain Cliff Morgan stopped him going further) he did most of his pioneering work in England much to the chagrin of certain sections of the RFU.

As a CCPR 'technical representative' in the Midlands he wrote to the then Secretary of the RFU, Colonel Douglas Prentice, to propose establishing a coaching scheme. The colonel was dismissive but punctilious in his response, pointing out that each constituent body was autonomous. Fortunately, Williams found an ally in Rusty Scorer, President of the North Midlands, and, with the help of luminaries such as Jeff Butterfield and Ian Beer, launched the first ever coaching courses in the UK.

At roughly the same time (1964) Wales went on tour (for the first time) to South Africa and lost 24-3 which caused so much soul searching that at the following AGM of the WRU the general committee was charged with the responsibility of "examining the state of Welsh Rugby and making recommendations for the future". That led to a working party on coaching and that eventually led to Williams being appointed in 1967 (which coincided with the start of my international career).

Rugby being rugby, of course, it was something of a false dawn. Even though Williams was allowed to coach coaches he was not allowed to coach the national team - that had to remain strictly amateur. It did, however, trigger the appointment of the first Welsh national coach, Dai Nash. He was succeeded by Clive Rowland and for the next decade Wales dominated European rugby.

Throughout that time Williams officially had to be content with scrutinising expenses and the like but he was always there at squad sessions in his red tracksuit and white polo neck illegally helping on technical issues with the forwards (something Rowlands never ever pretended to understand). In 1969 the RFU appointed Don Rutherford as their first coaching organiser and in 1971 the Lions appointed a coach (Carwyn James) as the assistant manager for the first time.

It was a new era and Williams was at the heart of it. Those who hate professionalism will still be cursing him but he can look back with great pride knowing he played a major part in shaping the game the game as we know it today.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
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

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