Selections & Collections, Cardiff

Sat 05 December 2020, 15:00 PM - Cardiff Saleroom, South Wales

Lot 484

A 1940’s INTERNATIONAL WALES RUGBY UNION JERSEY MATCH-WORN BY BILLY CLEAVER (1921 – 2003) in traditional red with white collar, Prince of Wales feathers embroidered directly on to the jersey, with blue ribbon and ‘ICH DIEN’, bears label for D L Davies’ outlet ‘The Bon’, Swansea (faintly inscribed J W Kyle – please see provenance below), printed black ‘F’ to canvas panel stitched to back, together with a black and white still photograph of Cleaver’s kicking action Auctioneer’s Note: William Benjamin Cleaver was born in Treorchy in 1921. He was known as Billy Cleaver and later by his nickname, ‘Billy Kick’. There is perhaps an unfair perception that the typical Welsh amateur era rugby-player was a man lacking in culture, that their strength and determination came from hard labouring jobs in the collieries and heavy industry. Such a theory was often disproven, especially in the years following the second world war. The famous Welsh backline quartet during that period consisted of Bleddyn Williams, a product of Rydal School, Doctor. Jack Matthews – a physician, Haydn Tanner who attended Harvard Business School and then Billy Cleaver. Cleaver was a graduate of Mining at Cardiff University, he was a wine connoisseur, a tenor and an art enthusiast who later became the Secretary of the Contemporary Art Society of Wales. Cleaver’s nickname ‘Billy Kick’ was a betrayal of his personality and his rugby play, which was as cultured as the man himself. He had a far greater depth to his game than simply kicking. Cleaver was a robust, reliable and charismatic individual. With his distinguishable mop of blonde hair, he is an unmistakable figure in the team photos from the period - even in black and white. Cliff Morgan in ‘Heart and Soul: The Character of Welsh Rugby’, described one such photograph from the 1950 British Lions tour : ‘Rex Willis, Jack Matthews, Bleddyn Williams, Billy Cleaver and Cliff Davies look like a complete team in themselves; they stand (all much the same size and height whatever their position) with the confidence of gentlemen, some with their hands in their pockets, Bleddyn holding the ball, not unlike a group of army officers who have just won a regimental tour in Penang’. Cleaver was not only cultured and a gentleman of distinction, but he was one of the great utility backs of the early post-war era. He was best known for his defensive play but he had great technical ability in attack, being able to seamlessly take a pass on the move without interrupting the rhythm of play, while then moving the ball on to his outside with elegance, invariably he would then spirit behind his centres to make himself available again in the move. If the ball was dropped or came loose, he regularly scooped the ball effortlessly from his toes before it was turned over to the opposition. As with many naturally gifted sportsmen, Cleaver was not inclined to train too hard. His playing colleagues were staggered that he could muster such emphatic performances in a match while having such a casual approach to the game. He won 14 caps for Wales between 1947 and 1950, winning nine matches and drawing two. His many achievements included the distinction of playing in three different positions against the 1947-48 Wallabies on their tour of Europe and finishing on the winning side each time. He was also an intelligent and very effective pivot in Wales’ Grand Slam of 1950, their first after a thirty-nine-year barren spell. In the same year, he toured Australia and New Zealand with the British Lions, when he played in all three of the New Zealand tests at fullback. One of the old after-dinner stories from the 1950 British Lions tour was that the tourists stopped at Ceylon on their sea-passage home, where they played a one-off match against the national team. Billy Cleaver, much to the amusement of the rest of the party, ended up running the line for the match where he was constantly heckled by the locals to give the score. Cleaver could excel anywhere in the backline, but fly-half is where he enjoyed playing the most. He spent six years at Cardiff RFC primarily as a fly-half, between 1945 and 1951, making 150 appearances. During the Second World War years he firstly played with Billy Darch as his half-back partner for Cardiff, who was replaced when Haydn Tanner joined the club, and they teamed up in one of the most famous halfback partnerships in rugby history. The 1947/48 season was particularly special at Cardiff, one in which he partnered with Tanner at scrumhalf and with the sublime partnership of Bleddyn Williams and Jack Matthews on his outside. That season was regarded as Cardiff’s best, they scored a remarkable 182 tries in 41 games and lost only twice. In ‘Rugger, My Life’ Bleddyn Williams writes a glowing tribute: ‘Cleaver was a natural footballer; but because people wanted a fly-half moulded on classical lines he was in and out of the Welsh team, playing at centre and full-back as well. But fly-half was his position, and I felt so all the time I was playing there for Wales against England in 1947. If “Billy Kick” had been out half that day I think Wales might have won.’ On his return from the Lions tour of 1950, Cleaver declined an invitation to be captain of Cardiff, instead retiring from the game entirely at the age of 29, to pursue further his career in mining. By the young age of 28 years of age, he had already become manager of North Celynen Colliery in Monmouthshire, eventually becoming a Deputy Director of the South Wales Coalfield. His premature retirement was a great loss to Welsh Rugby. But it was typical of the man who regarded rugby casually, as just another of his many interests and talents. He did however come back to figure at scrumhalf for the Lions against his beloved Cardiff to commemorate their 75th anniversary in 1951, partnering with Jack Kyle for one of the most spectacular games in post war rugby. Provenance: consigned in Ireland, from the collection of the late Jack Kyle OBE (1926 - 2014), one of Ireland's most famous players. The two players swapped jerseys on one of the occasions that they faced each other in 1947 or 1949 before the Wales team used a numbering system. The two players became good friends on tour with the British Lions where ‘he and Jack Kyle were as loth to appear at training periods as modern players are to pass the ball out in their own “25”….both their names will never be forgotten in the history of Rugby football.’ (Rugger, my life; Bleddyn Williams; Anchor press, 1956) Condition Report: one of the two buttons missing, faded printed ‘F’ on panel, small area of fading on back down spine, one small stitching repair on back which is believed to have been done during playing days, a few small blemishes but not serious, structurally no problems, in excellent condition overall, it has not been displayed so generally not faded and without pinholes or long-term folds

Guide price
£1200 - £1800

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