Wales v Ireland, 1971 - Barry John (left). Pic: Getty Images

The King Stands Down . . . Rugby World Pays Tribute To Barry John

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By David Parsons

Tributes, praise and gratitude have been offered from across the rugby world after the one and only ‘King’ of rugby, Barry John, passed away.

He was 79.

Hailed as one of the greatest players to have ever set foot on a rugby pitch, the Wales outside-half earned legendary status when guiding the British & Irish Lions to a famous series victory against the mighty All Blacks in New Zealand in 1971 – the only one registered by the tourists to date.

Kiwis are the hardest fans in the world to impress but they know a good rugby player when they see one and it was from this tour he was given the sobriquet of ‘the King’ after playing a key role in steering the Lions to victory.

He scored 180 points in 16 games, including 30 of the 48 points in the four Tests. That thrust him into the spotlight and turned him into one of the biggest sporting celebrities in the UK.

“To be crowned ‘The King’ in New Zealand when every back row forward in both the North and South Islands is trying to take your head off is quite some accolade,” said Terry Cobner, the former Wales and Lions back row man who is now President of the WRU.

“For me, he has got to be right up there among the greatest outside halves who have ever played the game – probably the greatest.

“He was a glider, rather than a sidestepper, who had a subtle change of pace and direction. Coming on top of the recent deaths of Brian Price and JPR Williams, this is another huge blow for Welsh rugby.

“After what he did for Wales and the Lions in 1971, those of us who followed him into both teams always felt we had huge shoes to fill. He was and will remain a legend of our game.”

Despite playing on heavy pitches on a physically demanding tour, John glided over the surfaces as if on skates, often putting his outside backs in the clear with inch perfect passes.

His god-given gift, allied with an air of arrogance that bordered on brilliance, made him the first real rugby union superstar.

“This is another huge loss for Welsh rugby coming on the back of the very recent deaths of JPR Williams, Brian Price, David Watkins and Clive Rowlands. Barry was an iconic figure in world rugby and will remain so,” said WRU chairman, Richard Collier-Keywood.

“His partnership with Gareth Edwards was the greatest of all-time and enabled Welsh and UK rugby to sit proudly at the top of the world game. He inspired generations of players, thrilled millions of fans and was always guaranteed to swell any gate at the venue at which he was playing.

“He is one of the greatest sportsmen ever produced in Wales, and is still talked about as the best No 10 of all-time in world rugby. That says it all about him.”

The mercurial John pulled the strings with effortless ease when he was playing and in tandem with his long-time teammate and friend Sir Gareth Edwards, he forged one of the greatest halfback partnerships that the game has ever seen for both Wales and Lions.

The former Cardiff, Wales and Lions No 10 continues to be the standard bearer for all Welsh outside halves.

Some say he was the greatest of all-time, topping even the likes of Cliff Jones, Cliff Morgan, David Watkins, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, Neil Jenkins, Stephen Jones and Dan Biggar.

He was at the peak of his powers when he stunned the rugby world when announcing his retirement at the age of 27.

By then he had a Grand Slam, two Triple Crowns and, of course, that remarkable series win over New Zealand with the 1971 Lions to look back on.

John began his rugby career as a schoolboy playing for his local team Cefneithin RFC before switching to Llanelli in 1964.

Three years later, John moved to Cardiff, where his partnership with Edwards became one of world rugby’s most famous half-back pairings.

Former Wales and Lions teammate, Gerald Davies, referred to John in his autobiography as: “Whilst the hustle and bustle went on around him he could divorce himself from it all; he kept his emotions in check and a careful rein on the surrounding action. The game would go according to his will and no-one else’s”.

He retired from rugby as Wales highest points scorer, with 90 from 25 games, and partnered Edwards a then record 23 times for Wales and five more with the Lions on two tours.

He eventually walked away from the game he had adorned, citing the pressure of fame and expectation behind his decision.

When England played Wales in 1972 he was ambushed after the game by Eamonn Andrews who rushed him off to the TV studios for a special edition of ‘This is Your Life’.

He couldn’t book a table in a restaurant under his own name and he once caused a traffic jam on Queen Street in Cardiff.

“I was waiting at the lights to cross the road, and somebody left their car idling to come and shake hands. Others joined in, and before long there was a massive tailback,” he recalled.

In the end, the “monster of fame” forced him to find a way out of the game he had adorned at the age of 27. Things came to a head when a young girl in Rhyl curtseyed before him.

Born in Cefneithin, he came from a rugby playing family and played with and against his back row brothers Alan and Clive. Another brother, Delville, also played, while his sister, Madora, married Derek Quinnell.

He launched his career at Llanelli before moving to Cardiff, where he cemented his great partnership with Edwards.

When they first trained together ahead of their Wales debut against New Zealand in 1967, John told his scrum half “you just throw it and I’ll catch it.”

He was one of the inaugural inductees of the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 1997 and in 1999 was inducted onto the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame’s ‘Roll of Honour’.

In 2015 he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

After leaving the game he became a highly respected columnist for the Daily Express and then Wales on Sunday.

Barry John (25 caps, 5 Lions Tests) Cap No: 703 / Lions: #473; B: 06 January 1945 in Cefneithin; D: 04 February 2024 in Cardiff

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