Cliff Morgan: One of sport’s great entertainers

The former Cardiff, Wales and Lions outhalf brought such pleasure to people with his talent on the pitch and later his work as a broadcaster

 

“This is Gareth Edwards, a dramatic start. What a score! Oh, that fella Edwards. If the greatest writer of the written word could’ve written that story, no one would have believed it.”

It’s rare that the soundtrack to an iconic sporting moment is as evocatively memorable as the television footage. Cliff Morgan’s lilting voice that betrayed a rising sense of excitement was perfect accompaniment to Gareth Edwards’ try in the Barbarians famous victory over New Zealand in 1973. Morgan (83) died yesterday.

The Welshman’s defining moment as a commentator had occurred in slightly fortuitous circumstances. Bill McLaren had been scheduled to call the game but had fallen ill. Morgan blazed a trail from a brilliant player to a superb commentator, one of the first to do so.

The only son of Clifford and Edna May Morgan, he was born in Trebanog in the Rhondda Valley. He began playing rugby at Tonyrefail School and ascribed his development to rugby master Ned Gribble, whom he describes as the man “who did more than anyone to shape my future in rugby”.

Wonderful talent
A wonderful talent, he was one of the greatest outhalves to play the game and in the eyes of Ireland’s Jackie Kyle, the greatest. The two men opposed one another on Morgan’s debut for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park on March 10th, 1951.

They shared a lovely vignette which Morgan told repeatedly through the years. He recalled: “I felt a hand gently touch my shoulder. It was the man I was having to mark, the maestro Jackie Kyle. He put an arm around me and whispered as fondly and genuinely as an uncle would: “I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful first cap today, Cliffie.”

Won 29 caps
He went on to win 29 caps for Wales and also toured with the 1955 British & Irish Lions playing 15 matches, all four Tests - the series ended 2-2 the first time that that century that the Springboks hadn’t won it – and scored a brilliant try in a 23-22 victory in the first Test before a world record crowd of 96,000 in Ellis Park, Johannesburg.

His fellow Lions tourist, Tony O’Reilly, would later say of Morgan: “He is a man apart because of his gaiety, his grandeur, eloquence, because of his skills as a football player, and his generosity to other players, which was enormous. He is not a selfish man in life or on the field. To me he is simply the greatest of them all.”

The Welshman made 202 appearances for Cardiff between 1949 and 1958 with a brief one year hiatus in the 1954-55 season when he played for Bective Rangers. He won the Leinster Senior Cup and the heart of an Irish air hostess Nuala Martin, to whom he was married – they had two children Catherine and Nicholas – for 44 years until her death in 1999. He is survived by his second wife Patricia Ewing.

Maurice Mortell Snr, a wing who won nine caps for Ireland, scoring five tries (1953-54) played alongside Morgan at Bective Rangers. He recalled: “Cliff was an engineer and was transferred from Cardiff to a company called Wire Ropes in Wicklow Town.

“Ireland’s Grand Slam (1948) and Triple Crown winning number eight Des O’Brien was captain of Cardiff at the time but having being educated at Belvedere College recommended Old Belvedere to Cliff. However Belvo only took in former pupils of the school and those of Clongowes if I recall correctly. It was a closed club in that respect.

Missing piece of jigsaw
“I knew Cliff from playing for Ireland against Wales and had struck up a friendship. He came to Bective and Cliff provided that missing piece of the jigsaw that allowed us to win the Leinster Senior Cup. Hughie Church, a great scrumhalf joined us from Terenure, a junior club at the time. Cliff raved about him, ‘Hughie bach,’ little Hughie.

“Huge crowds came to Donnybrook to watch the Welsh wizard. He was a wonderful player whose first and last instinct was to run the ball. I remember in a first round cup match against Monkstown he fielded a kick at goal behind our posts. Instead of just touching down, he opened up, weaving past several tacklers before giving me the ball on our 25 yard line.

“I had to run the other 75 yards. As I made my way back slightly winded I can still see Cliff smiling and hear him saying: ‘I’ll teach you how to play.’ I have very fond memories.”

Ironically the team that Bective beat in the 1955 Leinster Senior Cup Final was Old Belvedere, the team to which he might have gone instead. Morgan scored a try to boot.

Mortell explained: “Jim Murphy O’Connor won a lineout ball, Hughie fired out a great pass and Cliff touched down under the posts, swerving between the opposing outhalf and centre. He met Nuala (Martin) at a dance while he was here and she stole his heart. Within a couple of days of arriving he’d organised a choir in Bective. He was a wonderful raconteur who could captivate a room.”

‘Most enjoyable rugby’
Morgan said of his time at Bective Rangers. “No question at all the most enjoyable rugby of my life was at Bective Rangers. In the early fifties there was little coaching and few training sessions. People played because they loved the game. To win a cup final and to learn how to deal with disappointment as did Joe Molly when he missed the final in 1955; these are the things that make rugby a game apart.”

Morgan suffered a stroke at 42, which temporarily left him speechless and paralysed down one side, but it did not stop him from going on to have a 30-year career in broadcasting, 11 of which were as the popular host of Sport on BBC Radio 4. He was also one of the captains, alongside Henry Cooper, on television quiz show, A Question of Sport.

In one of life’s crueller moments for a man who’d entertained so many with his voice he contracted throat cancer in 2005 and had his larynx removed, which limited his speech. It’s better though to celebrate his life.

Cliff Morgan was a wonderful entertainer on and off the pitch.

-JOS