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Billy Boston and the forgotten heroes of Welsh rugby

Collections - Posted 21-10-2021

Billy Boston is one of the most talented and successful Welsh rugby players of all time, yet for many years his achievements were hardly recognised in Wales. His career is a great sporting story, and one that deserves to be told.

Billy was born in Butetown, Cardiff, in 1934, and became a rugby star in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother came from Cardiff’s Irish community, and his father was a black merchant seaman from Sierra Leone. As a boy, Billy played Rugby Union for Cardiff Internationals Athletic Club (CIACS), a club that reflected the multiracial nature of the Cardiff docklands. He was an exceptionally talented winger, with great speed, strength, balance and footballing intelligence, as well as a devastating sidestep. Billy played for Wales at Youth level, but his dream was to play for Cardiff, and perhaps one day for Wales. There was no doubt that he was good enough.

Billy never got the opportunity to fulfil his dream of playing for his beloved Cardiff RFC; the same was true of Johnny Freeman and Colin Dixon, other black players who went on from CIACS to have very successful careers in Rugby League. Further, no black player was selected to represent Wales at full international level in Rugby Union until the 1980s.

A bitter division had grown up between Rugby Union and Rugby League after they had split in 1895 – Union was an amateur game, while League was professional. Professionalism was banned in Union, and players who went to the north of England to play League – or who even spoke to a League scout – were ostracised. Union was strictly amateur, and the hypocrisy and the stigma remained until the game became professional in 1995. However, generations of Welsh rugby players – many of them black – found employment in Rugby League, especially at times when Wales was struggling economically.

When he was approached by the Rugby League club Wigan in 1953, Billy Boston did not want to go north and his mother refused their £1,000 offer. Billy would sign for £3,000 and no less. The Bostons hoped and expected this to put Wigan off, but the club was prepared to pay exceptional money for an exceptional player, and so the 19-year old Billy signed a League contract. Having done so, he knew that his dream of playing Union for Cardiff and Wales could never be realised. That night, he wept and could not sleep.

Billy made an immediate impact at Wigan, and became a League legend during his career there, which ended in 1968. He played wing, but unusually he could play centre or fly half just as well. He became less agile towards the end his career, but he kept his pace and developed his size and muscle and a powerful hand-off. He was the complete Rugby League threequarter, and he was often unstoppable.

The year after he signed for Wigan, he was selected to represent Great Britain, and his career statistics speak for themselves: a club record of 478 tries in 487 appearances (110 more than any other Wigan player in history); numerous domestic trophies; 30 international tries in 31 Test matches; a Great Britain tour record for tries scored in Australia; the first GB player to score 4 tries in a match against New Zealand; and a World Cup win in 1960. By the time he retired from Rugby League in 1970, Billy had scored 572 career tries in 562 appearances – only the winger Brian Bevan from Australia has ever scored more.

The people of Wigan embraced Billy as one of their own, not just because of his success on the field but because he was a team player who was both humble and approachable. Billy felt at home in Wigan, and ran a pub near the club ground when his playing days were over; he never came back to live in Wales. The population of Wigan was almost entirely white, but the rugby club had long been cosmopolitan and multiracial in outlook, as had Rugby League in general, and players came in from all over the world. Unfortunately, however, Billy did still experience racial discrimination, most notably when Great Britain played several matches in South Africa after the 1957 World Cup. The South Africans told Billy – who was already unwilling to take part in this leg of the tour because of apartheid, and was now carrying an injury – that his skin colour meant that he could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the squad, and that he could not visit their hotel or play in any of the games. Billy rejected these terms. The GB team went to South Africa without him.

Ever since his early days at Wigan, Billy Boston has been revered in Rugby League. There are statues of him at Wembley and in Wigan, where one of the club’s stands is named after him, and he was one of the original members of both the Rugby League Hall of Fame and the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame. The city of Cardiff is also now recognising Billy’s achievements, and fortunately this has occurred during his lifetime. In December 2020, it was announced that there will be a statue depicting Billy Boston and two other Rugby League legends who came from the Cardiff docks area, Clive Sullivan and Gus Risman.

The Union game, however, has been very slow to recognise many of the Welsh players who have achieved great things in Rugby League. They include some of the greatest players in either code, but while their achievements in Rugby League are celebrated in the north of England, this has usually not been the case in Wales. They are forgotten heroes of Welsh rugby.

Although the story of Billy Boston and others can be discovered here in the Library using collections such as our, printed books and newspaper collections or some of the External E-resources that we subscribe to, we’re keen to develop collections relating to areas of Welsh life that are of national importance but have nevertheless been under represented, whether they relate to race, Rugby League or anything else. If you are able to help us with this, please get in touch.

Dr David Moore (Archivist)

This post is also available in: Welsh

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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