A giant has fallen. Former All Black flanker and Wellington games record holder Graham (GC) Williams has died aged 72.
In recent years Williams suffered from frontal lobe dementia and motor neurone disease. He would have turned 73 on Friday.
Williams was born in 1945 and educated at Rongotai College appearing in the First XV from 1960-1963.
In 1964 Williams was picked in the Wellington representative team, at that time a rare feat for a schoolboy leaver.
Williams forged a reputation as a skilful and uncompromising flanker appearing in a record 174 games for the Lions between 1964 and 1976.
Williams played a starring role in Wellington’s wins over the Springboks in 1965 and the British & Irish Lions in 1966. In 1974 Wellington beat South Canterbury to capture the Ranfurly Shield.
In 1967-68 Williams played 13 games for the All Blacks, including five tests. Williams famously scored five tries against Tasmania and kicked a conversion against Victoria. He made his test debut against England at Twickenham featuring prominently in a 23-11 All Blacks victory.
For personal reasons, Williams didn’t tour South Africa in 1970. His absence was seen as a factor in the All Blacks narrow series defeat.
In addition to his provincial and national service, Williams was a stalwart for the Wellington Axemen, winning the Jubilee Cup in 1972 and in his final year 1978. His last ever match was a 20-3 win against Onslow on 5 August 1978. Both championship titles he was part of were shared, with Athletic (1972) and Marist St Pat’s (1978).
The Axemen were one of the province’s leading clubs throughout his career and they also finished runner-up on several occasions, most notably to Petone in 1967, 1970 and 1974.
GC was the first player to win the Billy Wallace Best & Fairest competition twice, a decade apart. In 1967 he won it for the first time and was described as an "explosive force" on the competition and as the well-deserved winner. In 1976 he shared it with MSP lock John Fleming after leading throughout most of the season but run down by Fleming on the final weekend of the year when the latter earned 3 points and Williams none.
Williams later helped coach Wellington to NPC glory in 1986 and was a successful businessman for many years.
Williams was best known for his legendary toughness. Just seven years ago Williams was the talk of Miramar Golf Club when he defied a dislocated shoulder mid-round to complete his match. Some time ago Williams was issued a special card to clear Airport security. The metal detectors would bleep because he had so many metal plates holding his body together. Many contemporaries insist Williams was the toughest player they played with or against.
Club Rugby would like to express its condolences to the Williams family and share five famous stories that have come our way over the past few years that showcase ‘Willy’s’ bravery:
In a pre-season club match at Paraparaumu, GC was powerfully running in a try and at the last second was hit from his blind side by a desperate last-ditch tackle. It knocked him slightly off course and he crashed at full speed into a steel goal post, well above the padded section. He bounced back a good five-metres then lowered his head and drove in again without missing a beat and scored the try. It was joked that, after the collision, the goal post was in worse shape than GC.
On the morning of Wellington’s annual match against Taranaki in Hawera the Wellington team were at the Park, checking the condition of the playing surface and started up a “fun” game of soccer in blazers and street clothes. Burly second five Richard Cleland was wearing big, hefty shoes that had platform soles and raised heels that John Travolta would have been proud of. Naturally, even these “fun” games were keenly and physically contested. Richard and GC were disputing possession of the soccer ball and Richard took a huge kick at the ball and instead connected with GC’s unprotected shin. He split it wide open from ankle to knee. Blood everywhere! It was thought, that’s the end of GC for the day, but he had other ideas. With 25 stitches in a stiffening fresh wound, he took the field and played a full game.
In a game for Wellington against Auckland at Eden Park, GC hurled himself fearlessly at the huge legs of a rampaging Bryan Williams on the wing for Auckland. BG’s oversized knee smashed into the side of GC’s head at full speed and flattened him. Clutching his head, GC clambered to his feet and headed for the sideline. Many players in the team stopped him and asked, “How is it mate? Are you going to be okay?” GC pulled his hand away from his head and his ear flopped down into his hand, attached only by threads. Wellington collectively recoiled in horror, but GC headed briskly to the sideline and added a couple of dozen stitches to his sizeable and growing personal collection. With his head bandaged like a mummy he was back on the field a week later.
In a club match for Wellington against Poneke at Athletic Park a tough, young Poneke upstart was tugging repeatedly at Williams’ shirt in the lineouts. Williams warned the player to stop. The player continued so Williams took matters into his own hands punching the concerned individual in the ear. The player was ringing for weeks.
Murray Mexted recalled a valuable lesson he learned from Williams early in his successful playing career.
“I made my first-class debut for Wellington B against Marlborough in 1975. I was marking All Black Alan Sutherland. In a lineout he took a step back and I thought, what the hell is he doing, he is a metre behind me? He pushed me into Trevor Morgan, took a two-handed ball, delivered to the halfback and ran off after the ball before I had realised what had happened. I marked Alan again the following year in the same match. I followed Alan every time he took a step back. I was holding my own until he punched me in the ear. I collapsed momentarily and was dizzy. GC Williams pulled me back to my feet and dragged me by my arm to the next scrum. Williams growled, ‘don't show pain!’ ”