Cliff Morgan, the mellifluous voice of rugby, has died

Cliff Morgan: a lilting voice of eloquence
Cliff Morgan: a lilting voice of eloquence

For many of us, the words have become a mantra, a poetic memorial from a passed age, one that has been elevated to the status of almost Arthurian legend. This was a sports broadcasting Camelot, delivered by its Merlin.

Never mocked, always revered, as well as a roll call of great rugby players of a bygone era, and a reminder of “the greatest try of all time”, today it also summons up a classic piece of television commentary. It was just so good that even those who were actually there in person in the stands at Cardiff Arms Park 40 years ago, who did not witness that try with the benefit of the BBC cameras, have committed the commentator’s words to everlasting memory.

It always needs to be recited with a lilting voice of eloquence.

“John Pullin, England’s captain. The hooker…” And then, “Kirkpatrick, to Williams. This is great stuff. Phil Bennett covering. Chased by Alistair Scown. Brilliant… Ooooh, that’s brilliant! John Williams, Bryan Williams …Pullin, John Dawes …Great dummy! …David, Tom David …the halfway line …Brilliant by Quinnell! This is Gareth Edwards! A dramatic start! What a score!”

It has become a poem of rugby.

It was, of course, composed and immediately recited off-the-cuff by Cliff Morgan, a bard of the microphone, the former Wales fly-half and later BBC television executive, who has died today, aged 83.

Morgan made his Wales international debut in 1951 and was regarded by many as one of the finest outside halves of all time. Yet if anything, Morgan’s career as a broadcaster and BBC executive was steeped in greater achievement than he managed on the rugby field.

Most remarkable of all, given the high regard in which his coverage of the Barbarians versus the All Blacks from 1973 is held, Morgan was not even a regular or long-term commentator. As you might expect of the ever self-effacing Morgan, he described being given the commentary task that day as “one of the great privileges of my life”.

In an interview with The Independent 10 years ago, Morgan said: “The commentary should have been done by Bill McClaren, the greatest, but he couldn’t do it.

“The game had everything. It had all the qualities of an exhibition game, yet great toughness and both sides wanted to win. I was thrilled to be able to convey something of the atmosphere to a live audience in New Zealand, as well as Great Britain.”

He also said that he based his commentary style on his conversation style: “That is the way I talk to people and that is the way I broadcast. I am a simple soul.”

Morgan was born near Porth in the Rhondda Valley on April 7, 1930, the son of a miner. He joined Cardiff rugby club in 1949, straight from Tonyrefail Grammar School, a “bandy-legged little sod” according to his own description, who trained Tuesdays and Thursdays at Cardiff for a pint of a beer and a kipper. Morgan’s terrific sprinting speed and astute kicking ability was quickly honed so that he played a leading role in Wales’s Five Nations Grand Slam in 1952.

Proud Welshman: Morgan in his playing days
Proud Welshman: Morgan in his playing days

Morgan was prominent in the British Lions side which became the first to avoid a series defeat in South Africa in 1955. In front of a world record crowd of 100,000 at Ellis Park, he scored a try in the opening Test and captained the Lions to a third Test win.

In an era when much less international rugby was played than today – a part-time amateur player might play no more than six times for his country in a whole year, when international training consisted of two hours together on the paddock on the eve of a match – Morgan won 29 caps for Wales, and captained his country from 1956.

His association with the Lions, after his retirement from the game as a player and his move into broadcasting in 1958, did much to develop the public affection for the ethos of the touring side.

Noted for his kindness and generosity of spirit, he also kept in contact with many of his oldest friends from the valleys, including the actor Richard Burton, who would call upon Morgan whenever he needed tickets for a Wales match at Cardiff, legend has it even asking for a pair of seats for himself and Elizabeth Taylor when they were filming Cleopatra. “He did once admit to me that he would sooner have played one international match for Wales than Hamlet at the Old Vic,” Morgan recalled. “That is what rugby meant to a Welshman in my day.”

After starting as a sports organiser for BBC Wales, through the 1960s and 1970s, Morgan developed a wide-ranging career as a broadcaster that went far beyond simply delivering live commentary, and demonstrated great skills as a story-teller and programme-maker which took him outside the confines of BBC Sport.

He spent two years as editor of ITV’s current affairs programme This Week. On returning to the BBC, he produced  Grandstand and Sportsnight With Coleman, as well as appearing on, and helping to establish, A Question of Sport as one of the original team captains, with Henry Cooper, from 1970.

His broadcasting work continued, though was reduced after he suffered a life-threatening stroke when aged 42.

In 1974, Morgan became head of BBC Radio outside broadcasts, and from 1976 to 1987 he was head of sport and outside broadcasts for BBC Television, supervising coverage of events including football World Cups, Commonwealth and Olympic Games, royal weddings and other national ceremonial occasions.

His mellifluous tones continued to be heard on the airwaves through regular radio presenting work, on programmes such as  Radio 2’s These You Have Loved and Radio 4’s Sport on Four (from 1977–1998), and My Heroes (1987–1990).

But in his later years, after his retirement from BBC television in 1987, Morgan the great communicator, the easy speaker, suffered the cruellest of illnesses when he was diagnosed with a cancer of his vocal cords, necessitating a series of operations for the removal of his larynx, and limiting his ability to speak, never mind sing as he once did.

In 2005 Sue Mott conducted a moving interview with Morgan, in which her questions were put to him in writing in between sessions of therapy in a Southampton hospital, with the answers relayed by Morgan’s wife, Pat, via a mobile phone used outside the ward.

Cliff Morgan in later years at a reception with two other members of the Rugby Hall of Fame, Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards
Cliff Morgan in later years at a reception with two other members of the Rugby Hall of Fame, Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards

Morgan recalled his early days with Cardiff in those post-war, ration-book years. “My first captain at Cardiff was Dr Jack Matthews, who delivered my children, Catherine and Nicholas, and it has been a lovely friendship ever since. We had an extraordinary array of people in the Cardiff side. Students and teachers, accountants and coal miners, doctors, salesmen and steelworkers. My all-time favourite was our prop forward, Clifton Davies, a coal miner from Kenfig Hill, who represented all that was good and wholesome about rugby.

“Clifton had the most beautiful tenor voice and my everlasting memory is of him singing opera after a game. All I had to do was play one chord on the piano and he would strike up the Prologue from Pagliacci.”

Not for Morgan the reminiscences of the old-time player for whom nothing in the modern game was right (though he did feel that there was much that was wrong). Morgan had much admiration for some of the recent generations of Welsh rugby who had restored pride to the red shirt.

“When I see the physical demands of the modern professional game, I shudder. I always wonder if I would have had the guts and courage to tackle an 18-stone forward. I think not.

“I must admit I was a coward. I ran away from opponents and not into them. I have to admit I have deep concern about the emphasis on ‘big hits’. Even in training so many players are being injured on the eve of a match.

“Today’s players are fitter and more mobile, bigger and stronger, more physical and tactically aware than we ever were. Rugby, like life, was so much more simple all those years ago. I doubt very much if my generation, as amateurs, could have survived in international rugby these days.

“But I remember a Welsh selector during the late Sixties and early Seventies telling the great Gareth Edwards in the foyer of the Angel Hotel on the Friday before an England game at Cardiff Arms Park that he had to prove his fitness at 10 o’clock the next morning. Gareth just looked at him and, still in his blazer, did 20 back somersaults on the spot. ‘That OK, Mr Jones?’ he asked with a smile. Gareth Edwards, by the way, is still the greatest player in any position I have ever seen.

“I’m all for discipline but also believe in encouraging the natural instincts of young players. For that is when you get the style of rugby of that never-to-be-forgotten Welsh team including JPR Williams, Gareth Davies, John Dawes, Gareth Edwards, Barry John, coached by Clive Rowlands. That team made us all proud to be Welsh.”

Cliff Morgan, who was awarded the OBE for his services to broadcasting, was married to Nuala Martin for 45 years before her sudden death in 1999 on the eve of the Rugby World Cup. He leaves two children and his second wife, Pat, who he married in 2001.

The SJA, its officers, committee and membership, sends its deep condolences to all of Cliff Morgan’s family and friends.

  • BBC Radio 5 is broadcasting a tribute to Cliff Morgan this evening, August 29, from 7.30pm. It should also be available on BBC iPlayer
  • Post your memories or tributes to Cliff Morgan below

One thought on “Cliff Morgan, the mellifluous voice of rugby, has died

  1. Farewell Cliff Morgan, one of the finest fly halves I ever saw and master broadcaster with whom I had the pleasure of working on several levels. He was a poet, philosopher, writer, commentator and a gentleman and scholar. He had bravely and quietly battled failing health for several years, with never a complaint.

    I last saw Cliff at Henry Cooper’s funeral. He was on two sticks, and struggling to make himself understood because one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard was virtually muted by the cruelty of illness, but he was still able to emanate his natural warmth and charm.

    I had the privilege of scripting TWO This Is Your Life tributes to Cliff. The first was in the hands of Eamonn Andrews when he died in hospital while editing the script. You can imagine the stick I had to take over that from the TILY team.The second was two years later when Michael Aspel took over the Big Red Book. It was almost impossible to squeeze his incredible story into 30 minutes. Truly a Renaissance Man.

    His next boast would have been his first.

    We will not see his like again. RIP old friend.

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