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James, Carwyn Rees (1929–1983), rugby player and coach, was born on 2 November 1929 in Rose Villa, Heol yr Ysgol, Cefneithin, Carmarthenshire, the youngest of the four children of Michael James (1891–1972), coalminer, of Beulah, Cardiganshire, and his wife, Anne, née Davies (1903–1974). Between 1941 and 1948 he attended Gwendraeth secondary school, where he achieved notable scholastic and sporting success. Nurtured in the performance culture of chapel and eisteddfod, he acquired an early confidence in public speaking matched by written fluency in Welsh, his first language, and English. He was a stylish cricketer and, out of school, an accomplished snooker player, but it was his exceptional ability at rugby that privileged him in a community where athletic and academic prowess were equally esteemed. The captain of the school fifteen as well as head prefect, he won six schoolboy rugby union caps for Wales in 1947 and 1948, and captained the side in the latter year. Lithe and willowy, he was never a robust defender, but his poise, neat footwork, assured handling of the ball, bewildering sidestep, and aptitude for kicking drop goals marked him out for senior honours.

In 1948 James proceeded to the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, from where he emerged in 1952 with an honours degree in Welsh, a teaching diploma, and the experience of having played both at college and the more bruising local club level; the students' magazine acclaimed ‘a born footballer whom one does not hesitate to put in the line of classic Welsh half-backs … pivot of the attack and tactician-in-chief’ (Y Ddraig, 34). The two years of national service that followed enabled him to parade his rugby ability on a wider stage and to learn Russian, an asset used by Swansea rugby club when they invited him to join them as player and linguist on a pioneering visit behind the iron curtain to Romania in August 1954.

After briefly teaching at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Carmarthen, in 1957 James moved to Llandovery College, an independent boarding-school, where for the next twelve years he taught Welsh and assisted in the coaching of cricket and, especially, rugby. He instilled in his charges an appreciation of the aesthetic beauty as well as the effectiveness of the handling game, where the ball is received and transferred with speed and accuracy to stretch the defence and generally run the opposition off their feet. He was also now in a position to play for Llanelli Rugby Football Club, where his attacking skills and penchant for dropping goals drew the attention of the national selectors. Had his career not run parallel with that of the more durable Cliff Morgan, James would have earned more than the two full Welsh caps he won in 1958, when he made his début with a smartly taken drop goal in the 9–3 win over Australia in January.

A notable player in his own right, it was as an inspiring coach that Carwyn James became a household name in world rugby. In 1967 he coached a west Wales fifteen to perform creditably against the touring All Blacks; two years later and now a lecturer at Trinity College, Carmarthen, he began coaching the Llanelli club, and thus positioned himself to bid for the post of coach to the 1971 British Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand, which he duly secured. The Lions had never won a tour series in New Zealand, and several factors contributed to the 1971 team's historic achievement of two wins, one defeat, and one draw. These included the cornucopia of talent in the back division, built around the Welsh nucleus of such legendary players as Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, and J. P. R. Williams, reinforced by the brilliance of David Duckham (England) and Michael Gibson (Ireland); the mild New Zealand winter, which camouflaged the Lions' vulnerability at forward while releasing their outstanding backs; and the astute captaincy of John Dawes, and the canny management of Doug Smith. But unquestionably the architect of victory was Carwyn James, whose imaginative coaching methods, meticulous pre-tour preparation, acute analytical rugby brain, deft player management, and emphasis on fast, skilful, attacking rugby won the admiration of even the crustiest New Zealand critics. The following year British audiences saw James work his magic at first hand when on 31 October 1972 he coached his own club, Llanelli, in their centenary year, to a famous 9–3 victory over the visiting All Blacks at Stradey Park, and then inspired the Barbarians, essentially the Lions side of the previous year, to recapture their scintillating brand of open rugby to beat the New Zealanders 23–11 in the last game of the tour in Cardiff on 27 January 1973.

Under James's enlightened coaching Llanelli won Welsh rugby's challenge cup four times in succession in the mid-1970s, then, during a two-year stint in Italy (1977–9), his unfailing Midas touch turned Rovigo into Italian champions. In 1973 he quit the safe haven of Trinity College for the less predictable open seas of freelance journalism and broadcasting, recognizing full well that not only was a realistic academic career now beyond him, but so were any ambitions he might have harboured of coaching the Welsh national side. Petty jealousies, parochialism, and wariness of his intellect reinforced a suspicion of his political views, which he took no pains to disguise: a passionate lover of the Welsh language and its literature, he stood for Plaid Cymru at the Llanelli constituency in the 1970 general election, where he garnered a respectable 8657 votes (about the size of the average crowd at Stradey Park); he rejected the offer of an OBE, and he refused to watch Llanelli—though he coached them—play the Springboks on their controversial 1969 tour of the UK. These factors militated against his admittance to the higher reaches of the Welsh Rugby Union and his becoming national coach, a post he applied for by characteristically setting out terms he knew to be totally unacceptable to the union, but the only ones on which he would consider it. Ironically, Welsh rugby was rescued from the gloom into which it sank in the 1980s and 1990s by appointing as coach the New Zealander Graham Henry, who was not only granted the free hand in selection that had been refused to James, but who also openly acknowledged the inspiration of James's brilliant coaching of the 1971 Lions as a crucial influence on his own rugby thinking.

Carwyn James, a cultivated, sensitive, and essentially private single man in the public, masculine, and frequently insensitive world of rugby football, lost the struggle to contain his personal torments and the constant irritation of a painful skin disease when he died of a heart attack in the Krasnapolsky Hotel in Amsterdam on 10 January 1983. His funeral took place at Cefneithin on 17 January, followed by cremation at Morriston, near Swansea.

Gareth Williams

Sources  

A. Richards, Carwyn: a personal memoir (1984) · G. Williams, ‘Carwyn James’, Heart and soul: the character of Welsh rugby, ed. H. Richards, P. Stead, and G. Williams (1998) · J. Jenkins, ed., Carwyn (1983) [in Welsh] · J. Reason, ed., The Lions speak (1972) · Y Ddraig, the magazine of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 72/2 (summer 1950) · The Times (11 Jan 1983) · The Times (14 Jan 1983) · The Times (18 Jan 1983) · private information (2004) [D. James]

Archives  

 

FILM

 

Broadcasting House, Cardiff, BBC Library

 

SOUND

 

Broadcasting House, Cardiff, BBC Library


Likenesses  

photographs, repro. in J. B. G. Thomas, The illustrated history of Welsh rugby (1980) · R. Thomas, bust, 1986, BBC Wales, Cardiff

Wealth at death  

£72,042: probate, 15 March 1983, CGPLA Eng. & Wales