Barry John, who passed away at the age of 79, had a short-lived international career of only six years. During this time, he garnered 25 caps for his country and participated in five Lions Tests. Despite his brief stint as a player, John’s performance left a lasting impression and he became somewhat of a legend in Wales.
During the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand, John’s exceptional abilities were on full display as he effortlessly evaded defenders and played a key role in the team’s 2-1 Test series victory. Not only did he possess the traditional skills of a fly-half, but he also had a sharp eye for goal, could kick with both feet, and was a dependable defender. These qualities led to his record-breaking 188 points on the tour, making him the top scorer among all Lions tourists.
He was given the nickname “King John” for his achievement, which more than compensated for his previous disappointment during the Lions’ tour of South Africa three years prior. However, he unfortunately fractured his collarbone during the first Test against the Springboks in Pretoria and was unable to continue playing.
Although he was comfortable in the intense world of international rugby, John struggled with the overwhelming attention and fame he received back home. He was one of the first rugby players to achieve celebrity status in the amateur sport, often being compared to the famous footballer George Best. In his autobiography, John reflected on the shared experience of struggling with the constant media circus and loss of control over his fame, comparing it to Best’s own experiences in football.
After the 1971 Lions tour, Wales was unable to achieve a successive grand slam due to the Troubles preventing their match against Ireland. As a result, John retired from the game at the young age of 27. This caused shock in Wales, but they were comforted by the fact that they had a talented replacement, Phil Bennett, who was a key player during a successful period for Welsh rugby.
Barry was born in the village of Cefneithin, Carmarthenshire to Vimy and William John. His father worked as a miner and he was one of six children. All three of his brothers, Delville, Alan, and Clive, also played rugby. Barry took pride in his working-class upbringing and his earliest recollections were of his Welsh-speaking household, where his father would wake up at 4:30AM to prepare for his job at the Great Mountain colliery in Tumble.
Even though Barry did not pass the 11-plus exam, he was still able to enroll in Gwendraeth grammar school a year later. He then pursued a teaching career by studying at Trinity College in Carmarthen.
He excelled in sports and started playing for the Cefneithin village club before transferring to the Llanelli club while he was still in school. He made his debut as a senior player for the Scarlets against Moseley at the age of 19. John’s first appearance for Wales was in a match against Australia in December 1966, where he played alongside another player from West Wales, Gerald Davies. However, he had to step aside for the captain of Wales, David Watkins. When Watkins decided to switch to rugby league and join Salford in 1967, John, who had already moved from Llanelli to Cardiff, became a regular member of the Wales team.
John was influenced by Carwyn James, who was also from Cefneithin and had played fly-half for Wales twice. James supported John when he was initially overlooked by the Wales selectors for the under-15 team and became a mentor to him. In 1971, James coached the Lions and made John a key player in their strategic attack against the All Blacks.
After joining the Wales team, John accumulated a total of 90 points in 25 matches. However, this seemingly low score does not fully capture the success of his career with both the Welsh team and his club. His smooth and effortless movements allowed him to easily maneuver past the opposition’s defenses.
A generation after, Will Carling, captain of England, described John as: “I hope Barry faced a tougher experience in rugby than it seemed, otherwise we, the exhausted and unsuccessful players, were not even on the same level.”
Following his early retirement, John stayed involved with the sport as a rugby correspondent for the Daily Express and later as a commentator for Radio Five Live. He also served as the promotional figurehead for the sportswear company Gola.
John, similar to Bennett, was a humble individual and, akin to Best, his life was frequently tumultuous. He received a three-year driving suspension in 2001 due to incidents of driving under the influence.
In 1969, he wed Janet Davies, whom he had encountered during his studies to become an educator. Eventually, they parted ways, but she is still alive and is survived by their four kids – Kathryn, Lucy, Anna, and David – as well as 11 grandchildren.