Barry John, ‘The King’ of Welsh rugby, dies at 79

Barry John, known as the “King” of Welsh rugby during a golden era and arguably the sport’s first superstar, has died. He was 79.

“Barry John died peacefully today at the University Hospital of Wales surrounded by his loving wife and four children,” said a statement from his family on Sunday.

“He was a loving Dadcu (grandfather) to his 11 grandchildren and much-loved brother.”

John shot to fame after guiding the British and Irish Lions to a series victory over New Zealand in 1971, a period when rugby union was still amateur.

But the fly-half hung up his boots at the age of 27, unable to cope with the attention that followed the oval ball’s then-equivalent of Manchester United’s George Best.

“Barry was just about reaching his zenith then. He should have stayed in rugby a damned sight longer than he did. The world never saw the best of Barry John,” Wales and Lions No 8 Mervyn Davies said in Peter Jackson’s book, the Lions of Wales.

John, born in Cefneithin, north west of Swansea, in 1945, first played first-class rugby for Llanelli before moving to Cardiff in 1967, where he notably partnered legendary scrum-half Gareth Edwards.

John made his debut for Wales in a 14-11 defeat by Australia in 1966 and went on to win 25 caps, playing alongside scrum-half Edwards in all but two of his internationals.

– ‘Conductor of the orchestra’ –

John was first selected for the Lions on their 1968 tour of South Africa, but it was a short-lived experience as he broke a collarbone early in the first Test against the Springboks.

John rebounded a year later in a Welsh team boasting debutants J.P.R. Williams and Mervyn Davies and which won the 1969 Five Nations Championship.

Wales shared the tournament with France a year later before sealing their first Grand Slam since 1952.

Players in that 1971 Championship-winning side, still feted as one of the best ever fielded by Wales, became household names.

Then came the famed Lions tour to New Zealand, when John played in 17 of the 26 tour matches and cemented his fame as the “conductor of the orchestra”.

His pinpoint kicking was vital as the Lions notched up a 9-3 victory over the All Blacks in the first Test. New Zealand claimed a 22-12 win in the second before the Lions won the third 13-3.

A 14-all draw in the fourth and final Test sealed a series win for the tourists. John was hailed by New Zealand media as “The King”.

He made just three more appearances for Wales and a memorable finale at his Cardiff Arms Park ground: a Barry John XV versus a Carwyn James XV, the latter the 1971 Lions coach and a native of the same village.

“I decided before the Five Nations that I would finish at the end of the season,” John said.

“We’d achieved something pretty spectacular together a few months earlier, so in my mind it was meant to be this way, the perfect finale, instead of letting the season drift and then making my announcement.

“The only ones I confided in were Gareth and Gerald (Davies). I felt I owed them that, pulled them to one side just before kick-off and said ‘Listen, thanks for being great team-mates but this is my last game’.”

– ‘Rugby is an art form’ –

John, a magician in the red shirt of Wales and the Lions, stunned the Welsh public by retiring, a decision he said was correct, but also not without regret.

“I was becoming more and more detached from real people. Others thought it was funny, not me,” John said of the fame that his pivotal playing skills had garnered.

“In the end, it just wore me down. I knew I wasn’t mentally or physically right for top rugby.”

He went on to work in finance, for a branch of Midland Bank, before working as a radio commentator and newspaper pundit.

Did he have any regrets at hanging up the boots at 27?

“Yes, of course I did. I never wanted to finish playing, but circumstances were that you can’t just destroy yourself,” he said.

“The regret, which I still have, was not ending my career, but having no option. I felt I had at least a couple more years at the top, but only if I could be me and the celebrity thing was getting in the way of that.”

And as for the modern brand of rugby union? John argued that it had become “a science: players wear tracking devices and have to tick certain boxes”.

“It is a pity that magic is not one of them. I see rugby as an art form, a battle of wits.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *