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Cliff Morgan: Beyond the fields of play

By Falcon1 (May 2003)
June 15 2003

To many of the new generation of rugby supporters, not only is Cliff Morgan's name an unfamiliar one, but the era he describes will also be unfamiliar. Yet, it will do no harm to read this autobiography, as a reminder of what the game was like before it went professional, for better or worse.

To those with longer memories, Cliff Morgan was a commentator on rugby matches to rival Bill McLaren, a team captain on A Question of Sport, and the Head of Outside Broadcasting at the BBC responsible for coverage of a number of royal events including the wedding of Prince Charles and the funeral of Lord Mountbatten. He was also a creative fly-half who played 29 times for Wales as well as touring with both the British Lions and the Barbarians, a player with such style that in 2002 he was selected by Eddie Butler as the fifth best fly-half he had ever seen.

Born in 1930 in Trebanog in the Rhondda Valley, Cliff Morgan has a wonderful command of the English language, developed during a childhood brought up on readings from the Bible and sermons in the chapel, that make this book a real pleasure to read.

The book begins in 1972 when Cliff Morgan suffered a stroke whilst working in Germany. He describes with clarity the sense of frustration, fear and loneliness of being ill in a foreign country, but this is merely a springboard to describing how the international friendships forged through rugby came to his aid. Air Commodore 'Larry' Lamb, international referee, had him transferred to an RAF hospital, David Coleman, Michael Parkinson and Henry Cooper, all broadcasting colleagues, proved the depth of their friendship, and players such as Rex Willis and Bleddyn Williams became regular visitors. And how many people, let alone rugby players, can say that they have been offered for their recuperation houses in Gstaad and Geneva by the actor Richard Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor, who added in a note the comforting message:

"Should you need anything as mundane as money, you only have to ask."

In an era when rugby players expect their needs to be attended to, flying first class and attending training camps before all games, what was Morgan’s first international experience, against Ireland at the Cardiff Arms Park in 1951? He was sent a letter of invitation that also asked him to provide his own stockings and shorts, the only practice took place in failing light at 4.00pm on the Friday evening, without a coach, and he travelled to and from the game on the Saturday by means of the local double-decker bus. Finally, he was branded a ‘liar and a cheat’ by the Secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union for claiming expenses of five shillings for two bus fares that he was clearly informed cam to no more tha four shillings and eight pence!

Resonates with anecdotes...

This book resonates with anecdotes about some of the great characters of the past.

People like Tony O’Reilly, who returned to the Irish team in 1970, eight years after his previous cap, and now established as managing director of HJ Heinz UK., arrived for the game against England in a chauffeur-driven car. That afternoon whilst laid on the ball he was kicked and trampled by the English pack, prompting an Irish spectator to shout, "And while you’re at it, kick his bloody chauffeur as well".

It was O’Reilly who described a coach as 'a posh bus'.

Or Gareth Edwards, who when instructed by the chairman of selectors to attend a fitness test early next morning, immediately proceeded to do twenty back somersaults in the foyer of a Cardiff hotel without even removing his blazer, thus removing any need for the fitness test.

Morgan recognises that rugby is now a professional sport, attracting global audiences thanks largely to the media industry of which he has been a major part, and that players should share in the rewards of that industry. On balance, however, he expresses concern that in the headlong rush towards a new world order, the game might lose the comradeship that shines out so clearly in this book.

All Time Greats

Finally, Morgan engages in that time-honoured task of selecting great players. The book was written in the pre-Jonny Wilkinson era and so he does not get a mention. The common factor linking all the players who made Morgan’s list of great fly-halves back in 1996, was that they could all demonstrate what the poet Wilfred Owen called 'mastery and mystery'. His selection includes, from Wales Cliff Jones, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, David Watkins and ‘King’ Barry John, from Ireland Jack Kyle and Ollie Campbell, from England Ivor Preece and Bev Risman, from Scotland John Rutherford, from France Jo Masso and 'Monsieur le Drop' Pierre Abaladejo, from South Africa Hannes Brewis, and from New Zealand the Maori 'Mac' Herewini and Earl Kirton.

Morgan also praises a certain Rob Andrew, who he first saw at Cambridge. However, he regrets that systems of play overcame Rob’s natural flair and initiative, a victim, perhaps, of the modern style of play.

Eloquent and Absorbing

When hardly a month goes by without a ghosted book from a rugby player, this eloquent and absorbing book is more than the obligatory 'diary of a tour'. It is a diary of the rich tapestry of life enjoyed by one who displayed talent and enjoyed life not only on the rugby field but also as a broadcaster, writer or choir member … beyond the fields of play.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Written in conjuntion with Geoffrey Nicholson, the autobiography was first published in 1996 by Hodder & Stoughton and is priced £18.99.

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