One of the great rugby players of his generation
Success on field mirrored in broadcasting
Cliff Morgan is tackled short of the line during the the Lions win of the first test against South Africa in August 1955 at Ellis Park. PHOTOGRAPH: ALLSPORT HULTON/ARCHIVE
Cliff Morgan, the former Wales and Lions outhalf, one of the greatest players of his generation, has died at 83. He was a revered figure in Wales and held in great esteem across the rugby world, not least in Ireland with which he had a close affinity.
The son of a miner, he was born in Trebanog in the fertile rugby area of the Rhondda valley. He was educated in Tonyrefail Grammar School where he showed the promise as a player. He joined the Cardiff Club in 1949 and won his first cap for Wales against Ireland in Cardiff in 1951. His immediate opponent in the game was the great Jack Kyle, who prior to the match went over to wish Morgan well. It was the beginning of a friendship that endured through the years.
The match ended in a 3-3 draw, costing Ireland a Grand Slam and Triple Crown. It was Kyle who shone the brighter that afternoon, scoring a try, but that was cancelled out when Wales got a penalty goal. The following year Morgan was at his best as he helped Wales win the Grand Slam, and in December 1953 he played brilliantly in the Welsh team that beat New Zealand in Cardiff, the last time they have done so.
After taking up a business appointment in Wicklow, Morgan joined Bective Rangers in the 1954/55 season and helped the club to win the Leinster Senior Cup in April 1955, its first victory in that competition for 20 years. He had some able cohorts at his side as that Bective team included five men who played for Ireland.
In the cup final Morgan scored an early try to lay the foundations for an 8-0 win over an Old Belvedere team that included a young Tony O’Reilly in the centre. A few weeks later they were teammates on the Lions team that drew the series against South Africa 2-2.
Just as Kyle had captivated Australia and New Zealand with his performances on the Lions tour in 1950, Morgan left a similar impression in South Africa with one of the South African journalists describing him as “the best outhalf ever to play in the country.”
The following season he returned to Cardiff and in 1956 married an Irish woman, Nuala Martin. He was given lucrative offers to go to rugby league but resisted them and retired from the game in 1958 having won 29 Wales caps.
He took to broadcasting and left a lasting impression just as he had done on the field of play. He joined BBC Wales as its sports organiser then moving to independent television as editor of a current affairs programme. After two years he returned to the BBC.
He suffered a stroke at 42 that was to hit him hard physically and financially but he made a good recovery. In 1973 he did a famous TV commentary on the Barbarians-All Blacks match in Cardiff. That came about by chance when Bill McLaren was taken ill and Morgan stepped into the breach. His description of a try by Gareth Edwards – rated among the best ever in rugby – has gone into legend.
In 1974 he became BBC Radio head of outside broadcasts and two years later filled the same position for TV. While at the BBC, in a period when the corporation held the rights for most of the major sporting events, he was an innovative leader. He and Henry Cooper were to be the first two captains on the BBC’s Question of Sport which has endured over four decades. He oversaw such popular programmes as Grandstand and Sports Night with Coleman and his Saturday morning programme Sport on Four on BBC Radio Four had a vast audience.
He retired officially from the BBC in 1987 but for 11 years continued to present the programme – when it was discontinued there were many protests from avid listeners.
Hall of Fame
Morgan’s wife Nuala died suddenly in 1999 and two years later he married former BBC colleague Pat Ewing. Four years ago he was inducted into the International Rugby Board’s Hall of Fame, was awarded an OBE in 1977 and a CVO in 1986.
He wrote his autobiography Beyond the Fields of Play in 1996. A great lover of music he was president of the London Welsh Male Voice Choir.
A man of warmth and humility, wit and wisdom, he was a brilliant after-dinner speaker travelling widely in that capacity. He would never accept any financial reward and made a huge contribution to charity.
He moved to live in the Isle of Wight, but unfortunately was struck down by cancer of the vocal chords. That debilitating illness severely affected the voice of a man described by his friend and former BBC colleague Des Lynam as “one of the best broadcasting voices of all time”.
He is survived by his wife Pat and a daughter Cath and son Nick from his first marriage.