3 December 2014

With the end-of-year looming and all the focus being on travel plans and the like I missed a most important event, and the chance to pay tribute tp one of the great unsung heroes of the world of rugby.

Ray Williams passed away on the 3rd of December 2014 at the age of 87. May he Rest in Peace, his legacy will live forever.

I can hear some say: “Ray Who??”

Ray Williams was the man who took the coaching of rugby from an amateur, usually honorary, position to a new level of respect. In the early decades of the 20th century a rugby coach was considered as nothing much more than a past player passing on tips and the value of his experience to his team. He had no real job description. He did not manage the team. He was most usually not involved with the selection of the team, nor was he responsible for deciding strategy or tactics, that was the captain’s job. Nobody took the coach terribly seriously, especially in the northern hemisphere.

The coach had to be an amateur of independent means. He received no compensation for his involvement in the game, even his expenses were often only partially covered if he accompanied a team on tour or for away games. In a number of instances the coach had to pay his own mail ship or flight tickets and accommodation when he accompanied a national team on an overseas tour.

In 1967 all that started to change.

The Welsh Rugby Union appointed the game’s first national coaching adviser, Ray Williams.

Williams was a fairly good player in his day, even being invited to the national trials in Wales, but did not get a national call-up to the Wales team as he was a contemporary of the great Cliff Morgan.

He took to coaching after his playing days were over. Living in England at the time he was concerned about the quality and level of coaching at all levels of the game. On his own initiative he approached the English RFU with a proposal to create a national system of coaching courses.

They bluntly turned him down as they thought that coaching courses would lead to professionalism in an amateur sport! They did not want the breed contaminated!

However, the North Midlands, a sub-union of the RFU, liked his idea and allowed him to start offering coaching courses to club and school coaches. He was not paid for his work, but the impact of his courses started to have a positive effect, although very localized within the North Midlands.

Wales, in the meantime, were shocked by their 24 to 3 loss to the touring South Africans in 1964 and were galvanised into a complete reassesment of their own traditional dislike of coaching.

They has heard about Ray Williams and the work he was doing for North Midlands, and approached him with an offer of a job. Williams accepted their offer, although he had to take a pay cut from his previous non-rugby job to become the world’s first professional rugby coaching advisor.

Four years later Welsh rugby had been transformed. That great Welsh team of the early and mid-1970s rose from Williams’ efforts. By 1971 he could tell the WRU’s AGM that “Welsh rugby has been transformed.”

Williams initiated nationwide discussion on what was required by the schools, clubs, and the national teams of Wales. He held conferences, clinics and teach-ins and developed courses that gave Wales more than 300 qualified coaches by the mid-1970s.

Williams did more than organise. He brought a distinctive and original philosophy to coaching. Gerald Davies credited him with the “bringing-together of coaching ideas and physical preparation in a way which had never been done before.”

Defining rugby’s aim as “to win by scoring the greatest number of points that prevailing circumstances will permit”, he changed those circumstances by emphasizing continuity and recasting loose forwards as creators as well as predators. Mervyn Davies was one of the benefactors of this change in circumstances and famously said “A forward is no longer just a donkey!”

As a paid employee of the Welsh Rugby Union, Williams was not permitted to be involved with coaching that great Welsh team of the 70’s. But, as a member of that team loose forward John Taylor recalled, “He was always there at squad sessions in his red tracksuit and white polo neck, illegally helping on technical issues.”

It did not take long for other unions to learn from the Welsh. The RFU, who had given Williams the hand-off in 1967, appointed Don Rutherford as “technical administrator” in 1969.

In 1974 Australia invited Williams to advise on coaching structures. Australia took to heart what Williams said, and created structures based on his recommendations.

His impact in Australia has lasted at least 40 years, with Australia rising to the very top of word rugby and winning the World Cup with the imaginative, quick-thinking rugby which Williams espoused.

Williams wrote two books. Rugby for Beginners (1973) informed the rise of mini-rugby, while his complaint in Skilful Rugby (1976) that “so often a team’s ball-using ability does not match its ball-winning ability” might serve as an epitaph for so many teams today. Any aspiring coach she read those books.

Williams moved on from coaching organizer in 1979 to take charge of the WRU’s celebrations of its 1980-81 centenary season. In 1981 he became secretary of the WRU, staying until 1988 before becoming tournament director for the 1991 World Cup, with the unmanageable role of co-ordinating five co-hosts, and from 1993-97 was a member of the WRU Board and the International Rugby Board.

Our modern-day, very highly paid professional coaches should each have Ray Williams’ name tattooed on their chest. He was the man who founded the industry within which they earn a living.

Rest in Peace Ray Williams. You were one of a kind.