Early February in Cardiff. The opening weekend of the 2024 Six Nations, the world’s greatest rugby union tournament.
The Millenium Stadium comes alive. In a dramatic second half comeback, twenty-five minutes of unrelenting drama sees Wales recover from an unsightly 27-0 deficit vs Scotland. Claw back to within a single point.
It is a thrilling display. Skill, ambition, and bravery in equal measure. A young and inexperienced group of players, with nothing to lose, throw caution to the winds. Never say die. Stop taking crazy penalties. Stop aimlessly kicking possession away. Instead, toss the ball about with abandon. Attack from everywhere.
Scotland buckles. Discipline crumbles. Wales hammers away at the try line. The scores pile up. 27-5, 27-12, 27-19, 27-26. Still nine minutes to play. The rabidly pro-Welsh crowd, some 65,000 strong, once dumbstruck, now in full voice. Singing and dancing. The noise levels threaten to blow off the stadium roof.
One of the architects of the Welsh resurgence is a young midfielder named Ioan Lloyd. On as an injury replacement, his reading of play, slick passes, probing runs and accurate kicks help spark his side.
It is as it should be. A #10, the rugby equivalent of a dominant basketball point guard or a supreme football quarterback, spearheading the revival. Early days for sure, but potentially a new addition to the famous Welsh “fly-half factory.”
And, alas, there will be room in the pantheon. For, mere hours after the memorable Welsh fightback falls agonizingly short, word filters down that the legendary Barry John is gone. In the eyes of many the world’s greatest ever fly half, he passes away at the age of 79.
In my mind, I return to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Still a young boy, intrigued by the sport, I start to follow rugby closely. Though limited to the occasional grainy, flickering newsreel, or dog eared, weeks out of date, British newspapers, I learn as much as I can about the star players.
One of them, by all reports, is in a league of his own.
Indeed, John, after a short stint with Llanelli RFC, moves to Cardiff. First capped for his country in 1966, he then forms a remarkable partnership with another brilliantly talented youngster, Gareth Edwards. The pair go on to play together on multiple occasions, for club, country, the Barbarians, and most famously, the British Lions.
It is on the 1971 Lions tour in New Zealand that John absolutely excels. Invariably smashed to smithereens by rampaging All Black sides, the tourists this time win a captivating series. Secure two victories and a draw from the four test matches.
Immediately lauded by the Kiwi media as a special talent, John performs superbly. He makes light of the often shocking weather and heavy, sloppy field conditions. Instead, his mazy, balanced running leaves countless would-be tacklers floundering, grasping at straws.
In addition, his elite goal kicking and tactical acumen further sink New Zealand. While his cultured boot, thanks especially to a series of raking diagonals, gains huge chunks of territory. Tormenting the home fullbacks in the process.
On returning to Wales, John achieves hero status. The national team, already Five Nations champions from 1969 to 1971, heralds a Welsh golden age. Only serious political strife in Ireland the following year blocks the team from securing a second consecutive Grand Slam.
I watch and read from afar. For me and my friends, all sport addicted, highly impressionable twelve-year-olds, Barry John is the gold standard. Even allowing for our gridiron, basketball, soccer and ice hockey idols, we want to be like him. Kicking with both feet, dropping goals. Confident, calm, never rattled or rushed. Always with time, even under maximum pressure. Relying on instinct and skill, living off our wits.
Then, suddenly, too soon for us and for millions of others, it is all over. Perhaps rugby’s first legitimate celebrity figure, honoured and feted throughout the land, John retires from the game at age 27. In prime form, at the height of his considerable powers. A relatively paltry tally of 25 caps for Wales and another five for the Lions. A majestic career ends prematurely. In the fishbowl of Welsh sport, the unwanted pressures of fame, adulation and expectation the reasons for his decision.
And there is no way back. With rugby still an “amateur” sport in the 1970s, one bound by arcane rules, John’s subsequent decision to write an autobiography and then become a newspaper reporter disqualifies him from ever making a comeback. Not that he would have wanted to.
Now he is no longer with us, sadly gone to join John Dawes, JJ Williams, Brian Price and JPR Williams, other Welsh rugby icons of similar vintage.
It is impossible to compare accurately the various eras in any sport. Without question, rugby in the 1970s was different in a myriad of ways from the game played at present. Interestingly and significantly, John himself, in an interview just over a decade ago, categorized rugby as losing its artistry and becoming a science. A science overcoached, enslaved to size and power, too often played by rote, aiming to hit certain prescribed performance indicators.
A science aiming to tick various boxes. “Just a pity that magic is not one of them,” he slyly noted.
With that in mind, more than fifty years later, I look back fondly on his short but stellar playing career. To the winning. To the highlight reels. To the composure and effortless game management. To dancing feet, to sleight of hand, to wizardry.
And think to myself that if a moniker such as “The King” is wildly overused when labeling sporting maestros, for the great Barry John it perfectly fits the bill.