Barry John at 76, the rugby superstar who gave up the glory and will never forget the tragedy


As he turns 76, so a major milestone now looms on the horizon for Barry John.

The move into 2021 means we are into the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand, the trip that made him a superstar, but which also led to his retirement at just 27 a year later.

“Half a century, imagine that,” says the birthday boy when I ring to wish him many happy returns.

“My grandchildren do things in history lessons now that are more recent than that!

“You know, about the miners’ strike and Margaret Thatcher and things like this.

“I tell them I was there long before that. Read all about it!”

You can certainly read all about the part John played in that triumphant tour of 1971, which remains the Lions’ only series victory over the All Blacks.

Pulling the strings superbly from No 10, he scored 30 of their 48 points over the four Tests and a record 191 points across the tour.

It saw him dubbed “The King” by the New Zealand press, a nickname that has endured to this day.

So, has he watched back the matches from that 1971 tour much over the years, I enquire?

“Not really. I don’t have to you see, I was there.”

I really should have known better! Especially as I have got to know Barry pretty well over the years.

I worked with him on his Wales on Sunday column intermittently for a decade or more and we have shared a pint or few in the pubs of Cardiff, putting the world of rugby to rights.

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but that’s never been an issue when it comes to Barry. He has become a friend, first and foremost.

So it was great to hear him in good form and good health when he answered the phone at his home in Pontcanna – the landline I hasten to add, he doesn’t own a mobile!

“There are only a handful of people I would speak to, you are near the top,” he declared at one point.

“I would have made an excuse by now that there is somebody at the door or something.”

Good old Barry.

When we start talking about that 1971 tour, it certainly doesn’t feel as though he is going back 50 years, such are the clarity of his recollections.

“As you know, I have got a fair power of recall,” he reminds me.

Barry John in action for the 1971 Lions in New Zealand

When it comes to the high point of the trip, he picks out the third Test at Athletic Park, Wellington. It was one win apiece going into that crucial fixture.

“That third Test was make or break in the series,” he says.

“If you win this one, you are in with a shout again for the next fortnight.”

The Lions were to triumph 13-3, with John contributing ten points, including a try and a drop goal. But he is quick to pay tribute to the role played by his half-back partner Gareth Edwards.

“Gareth was outstanding. He produced a real opening salvo in the first half,” he says.

“He flattened Bob Burgess with a famous hand-off for my try. Burgess’ hair was up in the air like a sea anemone!

“Gareth flipped the ball to me and I just waltzed in then.

“We won that game playing good rugby, top class rugby, quick, slick fast. Then we had to dig deep, but the boys were so determined.”

The Lions sealed the series by drawing the final Test at Auckland’s Eden Park 14-14, but John doesn’t look back on that game quite so fondly.

“In fact, the final whistle was a huge disappointment when we drew and won the series,” he says.

“I had a feeling the whole team wanted to put on a performance to represent what a good side we really were.

“We fell short a bit and it was maybe my fault as well because I took the percentage line instead of a more attacking way of doing things, as I normally would.

“I opted for kicks to the corner rather than little probes or passes to Mike Gibson. But the clock was ticking and all the rest of it.

“It’s 50 years now and it’s for other people to judge the impact of that trip.”

The impact was huge at the time and, as the main man, it changed John’s life.

“I was the first rugby pop star, superstar, call it whatever you want,” he recalls.

“I was third in BBC Sports Personality that year. Princess Anne was first and Jackie Stewart was second.

“A month later, I was the first rugby player to be the subject of This is Your Life. I was coming off the pitch against England at Twickenham and there’s Eammon Andrews with his big red book.”

Barry John (left) and Gareth Edwards are chaired from the field by Welsh fans
(Image: Western Mail and Echo Copyright)

In the end, the adulation and his high

profile became too much and, in April 1972, he hung up his boots for good. He was only 27.

When I raise the subject, he says: “If you read my book, it’s exactly as it says there. I answer that question. I can’t withdraw a word or add another word.”

But then he goes on to say a few more.

“I didn’t want to retire, but it was the circumstances,” he says.

“It was like three doesn’t go into two.

“People didn’t understand how you had to go to work, how you had to be fit for international level rugby.

“I was getting lethargic, tired. You can’t be like that on the international stage, especially at No 10.

“You can’t be p***ing around, seemingly not interested. Oh no, no.”

So that was it. All over. But the sport had already given him so much.

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“Rugby gave me a lifestyle,” he said.

“I would never have met the people I did or been to the places I have without the game.

“It gave me friendships and respect.

“I made friends easily. Gareth, Gerald and I were like the Three Musketeers, have boots, passport and we will travel anywhere.

“Then you had people like Delme Thomas, who used to give me a lift to training from college in my Llanelli days. Talking to him was great.

“With opponents then, you had David Duckhan, Bob Hiller, Gordon Brown and Mike Gibson, who is godfather to one of my children. Great people.

“There were happy days.”

Just to reinforce what a big sporting name John was, in 1973 he appeared on the BBC show Superstars along with the likes of Bobby Moore, Joe Bugner, Tony Jacklin and Jackie Stewart.

And, of course, the father-of-four went on, for many years, to be a commentator and pundit on the sport that made him famous.

Barry John shares a joke with our rugby writer Simon Thomas

Barry John shares a joke with WalesOnline rugby writer Simon Thomas

But it’s not just rugby memories that spring to mind as John looks back on his life during our chat.

There are other momentous events, some of them very tragic.

Growing up as the son of a miner in Cefneithen, he was well aware of the potential dangers of a working life in Wales.

“Accidents used to happen in collieries and people would die,” he says.

“The hooter would start and finish shifts.

“When I was at Gwendraeth Grammar School, we were all governed by the second hooter. After that, 40 minutes and the school day was over.

“It would be three quick blasts on it.

“Then suddenly, one day, bang, the hooter went on and on at the incorrect time. It was wrong.

“People ran out of the classroom onto the corridors, all the pupils.

“The hooter was heard from everywhere. There had been a disaster you see. It was what you call a blow-back.”

That was an accident at Tumble’s Great Mountain Colliery in February 1958, which saw three people killed.

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Then, eight years later, came a devastating disaster that still resonates with John deeply – Aberfan.

“It was 1966. It was the year I got my first cap and I always remember where I was,” he says.

“It’s like Kennedy, where were you when he was assassinated. The same with 9/11. People remember certain things.

“With Aberfan, I remember that vividly. I was in Trinity College in Carmarthen and I was down in the canteen in early afternoon.

Local men and the emergency services hastily dig through the mud
(Image: Daily Herald)

“I remember the announcement coming on the tannoy, explaining what had happened.

“Two or three people in the cafeteria were in hysterics because they were from Aberfan. It was terrible.

“Obviously being a miner’s son and all this, it was horrific, the impact.

“I remember things like that. It’s a profound look at things.

“Obviously rugby is a different page in your life again, a page that gave me so much.

“It is what it is, 76 years and still up and running.”

And here’s to many more years Mr John.

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