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Barry John, the legendary fly-half from a different realm, bids farewell to the rugby world.
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Barry John, the legendary fly-half from a different realm, bids farewell to the rugby world.


What distinguishes the top athletes is their ability to evoke emotion in others. This is why, when the game ends, there is a profound feeling of shared sadness. In addition to being one of the greatest fly-halves in rugby union and a beloved figure in Wales, the late Barry John will always be a shining inspiration for countless young minds.

For better or worse the “King”, as they called him, played rugby from another dimension. He glided rather than ran and preferred to feint and tease rather than bump or smash. He was a clever kicker as well but, if circumstances allowed, his game was about spatial awareness, intelligence, evasion and angles rather than blunt‑edged orthodoxy. At his best he dealt in poetry rather than prose, an artful dodger in a world of leaden‑footed roundheads.

Alongside other Welsh icons such as JPR Williams, Phil Bennett, and John Dawes, he played a crucial role in shaping the national identity of Wales. Not only did they achieve titles and grand slams, but their unique style of play also set them apart from others. Their triumph on the 1971 British & Irish Lions tour, which remains the only series won by the Lions in New Zealand, solidified their legendary status.

It wasn’t all just fun and games. During the peak of his popularity, while waiting to cross Queen Street in Cardiff, John was recognized by a driver in a nearby car who stopped and got out to shake his hand, leaving the engine running. This sparked a chain reaction as others also wanted to greet him, causing a traffic jam down the street.

The King eventually became overwhelmed by the amount of attention he received and decided to retire from the game at the young age of 27. In some ways, he was like the Elvis Presley of southern Wales, much like his fellow countryman Tom Jones. His moves on stage were powerful enough to captivate any audience. However, managing the constant admiration and escaping its grasp proved to be a difficult task.

Barry John in action for the Lions in New Zealand in 1971.

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Unfortunately, his impact as a player will always be remembered. This puts modern rugby union in a difficult position as it tries to balance its desire to maintain its diverse and rich history that makes it attractive to many, while also acknowledging the significant changes that have occurred in the sport over the years, as evident in the recent Six Nations games.

Not better or worse, necessarily, but different, both structurally and aesthetically. While there are still would-be creative magicians out there such as Scotland’s Finn Russell or, potentially, Wales’s Ioan Lloyd, the amount of time and space in which they have to work is now minimal. Gliding, hip-swaying, lightweight No 10s, consequently, have mostly gone the same way as prog rock and old-fashioned sweet shops.

Gone are the days when teams would frequently attempt to run from their own half. As Clive Rowlands, former coach of Wales, noted, no one would purposely kick high balls directly to Wales during their prime unless they wanted to lose: “In the 1970s, if that occurred, Barry John’s response would be: ‘Thank you. Now try to prevent us from scoring.'”

Rugby has undergone significant changes that have impacted the game’s style and overall appeal. Aggressive blitz defense, improved athleticism, and strict coaching have all contributed to a less aesthetically pleasing game for many. Additionally, larger players, prolonged scrums, and monotonous five-meter lineout mauls have further changed the dynamics of the game. The decline of rucking and concerns about brain injuries also play a role in the game’s transformation. This is a far cry from the nostalgic “jumpers for goalposts” days, as even top teams are becoming more predictable in their strategies and plays. Spontaneous decision-making is discouraged as every player must adhere to a specific plan. In fact, data analysis in rugby has become so comprehensive that it can even determine a referee’s preferred aftershave. In the past, they may have been more inclined to drink it.

According to a recent report by Peter Jackson, a highly respected sportswriter from Wales, John is one of many who are skeptical of the changes in modern sports. He stated, “I have no desire to play in today’s game. It used to be about finding space and running into it, but now players are just looking to run into others.” The late David Duckham, a beloved member of the 1971 Lions team, shared a similar sentiment with me a couple years ago, saying, “We always tried to outmaneuver our opponents. Nowadays, players, whether they’re in the back or front, just charge straight at them.”

Can we estimate how many players from the Welsh team playing against England at Twickenham this Saturday will be causing congestion in Cardiff this week? Although Wales has players like Alun Wyn Jones who are highly regarded and culturally significant, the loss of Barry John, as well as other beloved players like JPR and Benny, is a sad loss for sports enthusiasts around the world.

Perhaps it is time for everyone to acknowledge the simple truth. Things have permanently changed and there is little benefit in holding onto a romanticized past that was not without its flaws. However, there are certain individuals who would have excelled in any time period and their names will always hold significance in Welsh rugby. Although the “King” may no longer be with us, his impact on people will never fade.

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Source: theguardian.com