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Berwyn Jones

The number of great Welsh track and field athletes who excelled as rugby players is greater than the mythical Max Boyce outside-half factory.

Names like Fred Cooper, Arthur Gould, Ken Jones, Gordon Wells, JJ Williams and Nigel Walker immediately spring to mind.

But one that may not instantly come to the forefront is Rhymney-born former British 100 yards champion and world sprint relay record holder Berwyn Jones. Although playing rugby union at school, College and his local club it was as a league player that he made his mark with the oval ball, winning three British caps, all against France and scoring a try in each game.

He died at the relatively young age of 66 in January 2007 at his home in Ross-on-Wye after suffering from moto neuron disease for some time.

Rhymney born and bred

Berwyn was the son of the Moriah St postmaster in Rhymney. Phil Atkinson who wrote the centenary history of Rhymney RFC in 1982, and himself a former sprinter and nippy winger at Oxford University, says that he only turned out for the club a handful of times. But he played in the winning Rhymney team in 1959 when Cross Keys came to open the new pitch at the local War Memorial Park.

It was in School that he met his future wife, Ann Williams who also became a schoolteacher and still lives in Ross-on-Wye.

Though Berwyn’s first love was rugby union, having played at school (Rhymney Grammar School) and at the local club, Rhymney RFC, it was as an athlete that he achieved true international sports status. He first showed his real potential as sprinter whilst at Monmouthshire Training College Caerleon (now part of The University of South Wales) during 1958 and 1959 before moving to Loughborough College that cauldron of British sporting talent in 1960 to complete his teacher training. But surprisingly in his first year at College he didn’t play rugby and didn’t do a lot of sprinting either.

A late starter, who first showed his speed by running for a bus!

Brian Anthony, husband of Carol Anthony, the Chair of Welsh Athletics, who played for several first-class clubs including Cardiff and captained Cross Keys during a lengthy career, was at Caerleon with Berwyn between 1958 and 1960. But Brian doesn’t remember Berwyn making an impact in rugby in his first year at College. Brian said: “In fact in that first year I only realised that he was a good sprinter one day when we all had to run like hell to catch a bus – Berwyn ran like a bat out of hell!” So the move to rugby league after only a hand-full of games in union was even more surprising. He began to show his form in both sports in 1959/60 however, being a regular in the College rugby team and being the star of the athletics team. He won his first representative vest in 1960 running for the Welsh AAA against the AAA after finishing runner-up in that years Welsh Championship. He also took both Monmouthshire sprint titles that year and was Victor Ludorum at Caerleon in 1959.

World record for Berwyn as part of a fearsome Anglo Welsh foursome

But whilst Berwyn became an outstanding player of the 13-a-side game, first and foremost he was a world-class track and field athlete. His greatest claim to fame came as a member of the Anglo Welsh sprint relay team dubbed “The Jones Boys” which equalled the world 4 x 110 yards record at the White City London in 1963. The time was also a Commonwealth and European record. The fearsome foursome of Berwyn, Ron and David Jones plus the 1960 Olympic 100m bronze medallist and former Cardiff student Peter Radford beat the mighty USA with a time of 40.0 seconds at the then home of British athletics.

The USA quartet included Bob Hayes, the man destined to win the following year’s Olympic 100m, who ran on the last leg against Berwyn. The Welshman said at the time: “I took over a couple of yards up, and could feel him coming closer and closer, but I just managed to hold on.” The time equalled the world record held by the USA national team and teams from Texas and Oregon Universities. 45 days earlier Hayes had set a new world 100 yards record of 9.1 secs, equivalent to 10.0 for 100m.

Berwyn shows a clean pair of heels to world record holder Hayes

Hayes was one of the world’s all-time great sprinters, having equalled the world 100 yards record of 9.3 secs at the tender age of 18. Coupled with setting the world record of 9.1 secs and taking double gold in the 1964 Olympics at 100m (equalling the world record of 10.0 secs) along with the 4 x 100m relay (world record 39.0 secs), he rightly takes his place in the all-time great category. He went on to be a star of American Football with the Dallas Cowboys. Hayes also set world records at 60 yards (5.9 secs indoors) and 220 yards (20.6 secs) in 1963. He died of kidney failure after battling prostate cancer in 2002. And our man from Rhymney showed him a clean pair of heels – such was the brilliance of Berwyn.

Without taking away any of the gloss from the UK world record quartet in that White City race, it should be pointed out that the world record for 4 x 100m was 39.1 secs at the time, which by conservative standards is about 7 yards faster than the imperial equivalent. However, the White City track that day in August 1963 was its usual soft surface and with more favourable weather conditions, the British team time could have been substantially faster -  certainly enough to have sole ownership of the 4 x 110 yards world record.

Apart from Bob Hayes on the last leg, the USA relay squad that day in 1963 included athletes who would win two gold medals at the following year’s Olympics. Hayes Jones who ran the first leg at The White City took the 110m hurdles gold in Tokyo; and Paul Drayton on the third took a sprint relay gold in Tokyo – as well as the 200m silver medal. Add to that John Moon, who equalled the world 100 yards record of 9.3 in 1960 you have a team on paper that should not have been beaten.

Berwyn plays major part as USA team crammed with the world’s best sprinters are beaten

So all in all, the USA squad that August day in 1963 could be literally described as being chock-full of the world’s best sprinters – and Berwyn played a major part as Britain’s number one in bringing them down in one of the finest performances by a team of British athletes. And another Valley’s boy, Ron Jones born just over the mountain in Aberdare played his part in that memorable world record run.

Recalling that August day over 50 years ago, Ron, now 81 years old and the winner of a record 12 Welsh sprint titles says: “It just happened, the team just hit form on the day. The runners knew each other well, but had only run once together previously - at the Welsh Games in Cardiff the previous week when we set a new UK record of 40.3. But at that time we didn’t think that the time was anything special.”

Invariably, the running order was always the same with GB sprint relay squads at the time. Radford on the first leg, Ron on the second long leg, David on the third and Berwyn on the last. Ron says, “I had a perfect understanding with Peter. I knew exactly when to start running, and had a very steady hand. Peter knew exactly when to place the baton in my hand. My hand-over to David always worked perfectly and we always gained yards on our changes.” David’s pass to Berwyn was again always perfect, and it was this change-over on the last leg that summer day 1963 that sealed the win for us.”

The last change was absolutely perfect says Ron. Bob Hayes cut it back to about a yard at the finish, but the Briton’s were victorious with a famous win over the Americans  whose last defeat in a sprint relay was shrouded in the mysteries of time. In their match against West Germany the previous week, the Americans had only just managed to beat the Germans thanks to a last gasp dash by Hayes.

On that anchor leg in London, Berwyn took over about 3 yards up on Hayes, who catapulted down the final straight only to see the diminutive 1.75m/73 kg Welshman still a yard ahead at the finish. Mel Watman in his report in Athletics Weekly said that Berwyn withstood the blistering assault of Hayes to score a victory that will be discussed for a long time to come. But Hayes did win the individual 100 yards in the overall match won by the USA. He clocked 9.5 to win from Ron (9.6) and Berwyn (9.7).

Berwyn’s only medals at major international championships came in the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games and the European Championships the same year in Belgrade where he collected bronze medals on each occasion. In Perth, he teamed up with Ron Jones, David England and Nick Whitehead to win bronze for Wales and in Belgrade he partnered Ron and David Jones and Alf Meakin for the third place medals.

Top sprinter in Britain and in world’s top six

The Rhymney flyer had a tremendous track season in 1963, with no one – probably including Berwyn - expecting the startling news the following year of his move to rugby league. He took the British 100 yards title and in his best ever performance equalled the British record for 100m with 10.3 seconds in Budapest, a time that placed him in the top half-dozen in the world that year. During that signature year, he became only the second Welsh athlete to win the AAA (British) 100 yards title after Fred Cooper who had won way back in 1898. Larry Questad of the USA was second with his great friend and rival from Aberdare Ron Jones third. Ron was to become only the third Welshman to win the coveted 100 crown when he won the title in 1969, the first year the event was held over the metric distance. But little did everyone in the sport realise that the 1963 track season was to be his last.

Berwyn’s best time of over half a century ago would have won him the 2014 Welsh title.

Comparisons with today’s top sprinters are difficult bearing in mind the significantly better conditions of today, but more than 50 years on, that 10.3 in Budapest would still rank him at the top of the Welsh sprinting league today. Nowadays all sprint times are automatically recorded at major meetings (realistically the difference between hand and auto times is about 0.5 secs) so Berwyn’s 10.3 hand time is equivalent to an auto time of about 10.35. Cardiff’s Dewi Hammond won the 2014 Welsh title with 10.43, clearly indicating the brilliance of Berwyn who ran much faster half a century ago. In my estimation, amongst Welsh sprinters, only former world 110m hurdles record holder Colin Jackson (best of 10.29secs) and current Welsh record holder (10.11) and former world junior champion Christian Malcolm would get anywhere near him today.

Berwyn also won the 100m for Britain in four international matches in 1963 – against West Germany, Russia, Sweden before the best individual performance of his career when he ran that 10.3 against Hungary in Budapest to equal the British 100m record. Altogether, he won nine British vests, winning his first individual vest against Poland in Warsaw in 1961 when he finished 3rd behind the winner, teammate David Jones. He made his debut in a British vest a month earlier when he was part of the winning British sprint relay team against Hungary.

At the time of Berwyn’s AAA win in 1963 to make him Britain’s number one, Welsh sprinters were amongst the best in Britain, so to even win a Welsh sprint title was an achievement. The fact that he only took three Welsh titles emphasises this. He took the 100 yards title twice (1961 & 1962) and the 220 yards in 1962. In 1961 he pushed another rugby star - the late Dewi Bebb - into second, whilst rising star, a certain Lynn Davies was second behind Berwyn in 1962.

Berwyn first appeared in the Welsh championships in 1960, finishing second in the 100 yards to Nick Whitehead who was destined to win the Olympic sprint relay bronze medal as part of Britain’s team ten weeks later. Altogether Berwyn had to settle for the runners-up spot on four occasions. David Griffiths beat him to the 220 yards title in 1961, whilst although he was destined to be British Champion in 1963, he could only finish as runner-up in both sprints, albeit to Ron Jones, also one of Britain’s best, which further underlined the strength of Welsh sprinting at the time.

Bargoed sees the Rhymney star in the making, as Olympic medallist Radford wins

In 1960, Berwyn ran in the 100 yards at the opening of the first and still only purpose-built athletics facility in the Rhymney Valley, Bargoed’s new £7,000 running track at the Park. Just before he left Caerleon College for Loughborough, he had to settle for third place behind Britain’s number one, Peter Radford and Ron Jones.

The Rhymney Valley and Merthyr Express enthused on its front page: “Bargoed Becoming Valley’s Sports Arena” as thousands flocked to the Park to see many of Britain’s best athletes. Although home to high flying Bargoed RFC, regrettably the track is now unusable for major meetings and is a shadow of its former self when it hosted numerous International matches and Welsh and Glamorgan Championships.

Silver in Sofia and Olympic bronze?

The following year - 1961 - he announced his arrival on the international scene with a stunning silver medal at the World Student Games in Sofia, finishing second to one of the world’s best sprinters - Cuba’s Enrique Figuerola, who had finished just a whisker behind Britain’s bronze medallist Peter Radford at the previous year’s Rome Olympics. The Cuban went on to win the silver three year later at the Tokyo Olympics behind Bob Hayes emphasising that had Berwyn gone to Japan instead of going North, he would have been in the hunt for medals in the 100m and as part of Britain’s relay team.

Says the former First Minister of the Welsh Assembly (Parliament) and athletics aficionado Rhodri Morgan: “Given how almost all British athletes out-performed their world ranking in Tokyo on account of the rainy weather, my guess is that Berwyn would have sneaked the bronze behind Hayes and Figuerola.”

Earlier in 1961, at the third Welsh Games at Cardiff’s Maindy Stadium, in his first full Welsh international appearance for Wales, he took the 100 yards in 9.7 secs to equal the Welsh record in the match against Scotland and Ireland. 

In total Berwyn set eight Welsh records at either 100 yards or 100 metres and became the first Welsh athlete to clock 9.6 for 100 yards (approx.10.5 for 100m) in 1962 beating by one-tenth the record he shared with Ron Jones and the late Nick Whitehead. He then became the sole holder of the Welsh 100m record holder with that 10.3 in Hungary until Ron Jones equalled it in 1968.   Altogether, he won nine British vests, but would have won many more had he not gone North.

At the time of his death in 2007, the 1964 Olympic long jump gold medallist, and President of UK Athletics, Lynn Davies said: “I was in the 1962 Welsh team in Perth with Berwyn, and he was an athlete that I looked-up to in my early days in the sport. It was a tragedy that he was lost to British athletics and I’m certain that Britain would have won an Olympic relay medal in 1964 if Berwyn had have been in the team.”  In fact when Berwyn went to rugby league, it was Lynn who took his place in the British sprint relay team at those Tokyo Games. As it turned out, the British squad of Ron, Lynn, Peter Radford, and former Lib-Dems leader, Ming Campbell scraped into the final to finish last, but in a new UK record of 39.6 secs.

“Berwyn Bombshell” as he goes North

His decision to sign for Wakefield Trinity Rugby League Club for a reputed fee of £6,000 in April 1964 was met with incredulity in Wales and the wider athletics fraternity. In those days it was not permissible to be a professional in one sport and an amateur in another so his athletics days were over. When he signed, the South Wales Echo announced: “Berwyn Bombshell - Will ‘Flying Squad’ break up, now. A tearful Berwyn remarked at Buckingham Palace when the team received their world record plaques from the Duke of Edinburgh: “I feel extremely guilty at letting the boys down - but it was an opportunity that I could not turn down as it gave financial security for my wife Ann and I.”

Jimmy Green, the then editor of the athletics “bible” in the UK, Athletics Weekly, said: “Berwyn’s loss will hit our hopes in Tokyo….we cannot afford to lose such a great fighter.” He continued: “it was only his never say die qualities which gave us narrow relay victories last year.”

Berwyn made an immediate impact in rugby league, unlike several former international sprinters who moved North, including the 1952 Olympic 100m bronze medallist Macdonald Bailey and former world junior record 100m holder Dwain Chambers. Berwyn scored a try in his debut for Great Britain in their match against France just 9 months after signing for Wakefield Trinity.

However, athletics’ loss was rugby league’s gain and he was to enjoy an outstanding career in the northern game, scoring 26 tries for Bradford Northern in the 1967/68 season. Long-serving Bradford director Jack Bates paid tribute to Berwyn when he died: He said: “he was a player so fast he could run away from a bird.” He continued to play until 1970 when he took up a teaching appointment in Herefordshire before retiring to Ross-on-Wye where he died in January 2007. In his three caps for the Great Britain, all against France, he scored a try in each game.

Berwyn toured with the Lions to Australia and New Zealand in 1966 and despite scoring 24 tries, he wasn’t picked for any of the five test matches due mainly to the outstanding form of Bill Burgess and Geoff Wrigglesworth.

He joined Bradford Northern (now Bradford Bulls) in 1966 for a £3,000 fee and scored 26 tries in the 1967-68. His final move was to St Helens in 1969 where he scored just two tries in a handful of games before retiring after six years in the sport.

Ray French, who played union for England and league for Great Britain before becoming BBC commentator said of Berwyn at the time of his death: “I had the pleasure, or problem playing against Berwyn and I can recall how his combination of blistering pace and swerve made a complete fool of me.”

So over 50 years have passed since Berwyn helped to put Wales on the world sprinting map, but half a century on he would still hold his own against Britain’s best. It is only now when his athletics achievements are revisited it can be appreciated how great an athlete he was.

He was inducted into the Welsh Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018.

Clive Williams