Barry John, who was known as “the King” among Welsh fly-halves, was a modest player who excelled in all aspects of the game.
The term “genius” is frequently used in sports, but it truly applies to Barry John. The Welsh and Lions’ fly-half passed away at 79, just one month after the death of another Welsh icon, JPR Williams. It is especially poignant that John’s passing occurred shortly after an impressive comeback by the Welsh team in their 27-26 loss to Scotland in the Six Nations match in Cardiff on Saturday.
John’s family released a statement on Sunday announcing the peaceful passing of Barry John at the University Hospital of Wales. He was surrounded by his wife and four children, and was a cherished grandfather to 11 grandchildren and a beloved brother.
Wales has a strong tradition of producing top-quality fly-halves, leading to ongoing debates about who was the greatest. Cliff Morgan, David Watkins, and Phil Bennett all had supporters, as did the impressive John, who took over the No 10 position after Bennett. In more recent years, Jonathan Davies and Stephen Jones have also added to the already abundant talent pool. However, all of them would have likely acknowledged that John stood out above the rest. He earned the moniker “the King” from tough journalists in New Zealand, solidifying his position as the best of the group.
John was the standout performer on the triumphant Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971. Although he had previously been part of a losing Lions tour in 1968, John’s exceptional skills left opponents helpless even in the unfavorable weather conditions. This was the peak of John’s career, as he scored a remarkable 188 points on the tour. It wasn’t just his elusive running that impressed the locals, but also his precise goal-kicking and strategic thinking that contributed to defeating the All Blacks in the muddy conditions.
Suddenly, John disappeared. The following year, Wales were unable to achieve a grand slam due to the conflicts in Ireland, leading John to retire at the young age of 27.
He was often likened to George Best and received overwhelming admiration and celebrations in his home country. However, rugby union was not a professional sport and John was a humble individual. He felt suffocated by the constant attention, and the tipping point was when a bank teller curtsied to him. Bennett, an exceptional fly-half in his own regard, took on the No. 10 position for Wales and it marked the start of a glorious era for Welsh rugby.
John was mentored by Carwyn James, another respected Welsh player, in Llanelli where he honed his skills as a fly-half. In 1966, he temporarily replaced Watkins in the Wales team. However, when Watkins became a professional player in 1967, John permanently took over the position. He made such an impact that he was selected for the Lions team the next year. Unfortunately, during the first test in Pretoria, John suffered a broken collarbone from a strong tackle on the heavy ground. As a result, he did not participate in the rest of the tour.
In 1971, John was motivated to achieve success after experiencing disappointment in South Africa. Despite being overpowered by the All Blacks pack, the Lions’ backs, specifically John and his half-back partner Gareth Edwards, formed an unbreakable bond and were unstoppable.
Although John is most famously known as a skilled fly-half in rugby, he, like JPR Williams, was no stranger to the rough physicality of the sport. In the 1971 Welsh grand slam victory, he showcased his true character by fearlessly tackling France’s tough forward Benoît Dauga, resulting in a broken nose.
After departing from the game in 1972, John had no opportunity to return. Prior to this, he had established a professional career through penning his autobiography and working as a newspaper columnist. Similar to Best, he struggled with the attention and recognition that came with fame. John also shared Best’s tendency towards recklessness and indulging in excessive alcohol consumption.
Edwards mentioned that he felt a sense of loss when his partner decided to end their relationship. He reflected on their time spent living together in Cardiff, Wales, and as members of the Lions team, stating that he knew Barry better than most. When Barry injured his collarbone in South Africa, Edwards was the one who assisted him with dressing and getting dressed.
Barry and I had very different personalities. While I was filled with nervous energy before matches, he remained calm and composed. However, once he stepped onto the field, he became a force to be reckoned with.
Although John only played 25 games for Wales and five for the Lions, his impact was made over 50 years ago. Jonathan Davies, a well-known Welsh player from the 1980s and 90s, honored John by writing “Rest in peace Barry – another one of my heroes gone.” Terry Cobner, the president of the Welsh Rugby Union who also played in the Wales back row and toured with the Lions in 1977, stated that John was likely the best fly-half of all time.
Cobner stated, “In addition to the recent loss of Brian Price and JPR, this is yet another devastating hit for Welsh rugby.”