Barry John serves as a reminder that the history of Welsh rugby remains influential in the present, according to Andy Bull.
It is said that Barry John, a highly regarded fly-half, ultimately decided to end his career in rugby after being offered a curtsy by a bank cashier in Rhyl. This is one version of the story, as others claim it was a nurse in Swansea, a young mother at the Eisteddfod, a man who caused a traffic jam on Queen Street just to shake his hand, or a group of children who flocked to see him while he was getting his car fixed at a local garage. John stated that living in a constant spotlight was not truly living, which was why he chose to retire.
John passed away on Sunday at 79 years old. A minute of applause will be held in his honor, as well as for his teammate JPR Williams and former England captain Mike Weston, at Twickenham on Saturday. The obituaries for John served as a reminder that the game of rugby in Wales differs from that played in England. With 54,685 registered players in Wales, distributed among 276 clubs, in a population of just over 3 million, it is clear that rugby is not a minority sport in this part of Britain. However, John may have preferred if it were.
“I am not a deity, royalty, or a healer, but just an ordinary man,” he stated, longing to live a normal life again. Ironically, his choice to retire from the sport at the age of 27 only enhanced his legend.
The influence of the past is still strong in Welsh rugby and cannot be ignored, especially when they face England. This topic has been discussed by both coach Warren Gatland, captain Dafydd Jenkins, and star player George North. The rivalry between the two teams dates all the way back to 1881, but was solidified during the years when iconic players such as JPR, Gerald, Gareth, Phil, and Merv dominated against the English. Welsh rugby has maintained a nostalgic feel since the 1980s, similar to West Indian cricket.
The past few years have been challenging for Welsh rugby. The national organization has faced scrutiny from an independent investigation, which uncovered a potentially negative and hostile work environment. The regional teams are facing difficulties and there have been contentious debates and departures surrounding the restructuring of the professional game. Furthermore, the performance of the men’s national team, which had previously overshadowed underlying issues, has declined as a new generation of players has emerged.
Gatland intended to utilize the press conference as an opportunity to unveil his team for the upcoming match. However, he had already disclosed the information 24 hours prior. He deviated from the original schedule and made the announcement without prior notification. This was due to his frustration with the team’s lineup being leaked the previous week. The decision to move the announcement forward caught the press off guard and sparked a lengthy discussion between Gatland and a small group of Welsh journalists regarding the relationship between the team and the media. At one point, Gatland expressed his feelings of being trapped in a cycle of pessimism surrounding the state of the game in Wales.
There is a different perspective to consider. It is always present. Geraint John, the director of community for the Welsh Rugby Union, was once a young fan who looked up to Barry John. “I was only nine years old in 1971, so my earliest exposure to rugby was during the ’71 Lions tour,” he recalls. “My idols were JPR, Gareth Edwards, and Barry John. The first match I ever attended was the 1973 game between Barbarians and New Zealand. I went with my father, so that was my introduction to the sport.”
During Gatland’s press conference, John attended a media event at the Principality Stadium where he announced the introduction of a new apprenticeship program by WRU, in collaboration with Cardiff Metropolitan University. The previous captain, Dewi Lake, and women’s team player Kelsey Jones were both former WRU apprentices. Some of the program’s alumni now hold positions as hub officers or club development officers.
“According to John, rugby in Wales holds significant importance beyond the traditional Saturday afternoon games at 2:30pm. It remains a deeply ingrained part of Welsh culture, with families still maintaining a strong passion for the sport. John emphasizes the importance of rugby clubs as integral parts of the community, welcoming people of all ages and backgrounds. However, he acknowledges that the communities themselves are rapidly changing. As he visits different clubs, he often hears about the decline in participation, to which he responds by highlighting the larger societal changes such as the closure of coal mines.”
“How can we make rugby accessible to the growing population in newly developed towns outside of Cardiff, where new schools are being built? On the other hand, there are towns with a declining population, like where my mother and father-in-law live. They have seen schools close down, leaving only one comprehensive. In these areas, the local rugby club relied heavily on the school for support, but without it, its future is uncertain.”
Meanwhile, the composition of players is also undergoing a shift.
According to John, affluent areas have a high number of young players in their clubs, including minis, juniors, and youths. However, a headmistress expressed concern for the 90% of children who cannot afford to play rugby. In response, the WRU has implemented a Fit and Fed program in impoverished areas during summer break. This program serves breakfast and lunch to approximately 15,000 children who typically depend on free school meals for nourishment. Additionally, the WRU purchased and distributed 5,000 pairs of boots for communal use.
The talent remains, just as it did during Barry John’s time. Whether Wales emerges victorious or suffers defeat, they will showcase a wealth of it on the Twickenham field once again this Saturday. Many of these players are young and inexperienced in the professional arena, but possess all the qualities of potential Test match players. There is also a strong sense of enthusiasm and anticipation surrounding this particular match. “Listen to Alex Mann speak about earning his first cap,” John remarks, “hear him describe it as the proudest moment of his life, and you will understand that the passion for the game still runs deep in people’s hearts. And if we could only secure a win on Saturday…”