WELSH rugby has lost another legend with the death of Barry John, just four weeks after former team-mate JPR Williams passed away.
John formed a celebrated half back partnership with Gareth Edwards – they teamed up for Cardiff, Wales and the Lions, and were key figures in the 1971 Grand Slam that launched the Welsh ‘Golden Era’.
At their first training session together, Edwards asked his partner whether he liked the ball delivered to his chest or waist high.
John famously replied: “You throw it, I’ll catch it”. That became his catchphrase.
The Wales fly half was nicknamed The King for the brilliance he showed in steering the 1971 Lions to their historic series victory in New Zealand.
He scored 30 of their 48 points, and mesmerised defenders and spectators alike with his dazzling running skills.
But just a year later he retired from rugby at the age of 27, after winning 25 Wales caps, 23 alongside Edwards.
John announced he could not deal with the fame and attention that came from constantly being in the spotlight, especially as rugby was still an amateur sport.
He later explained: “I was the first rugby pop star, superstar, call it whatever you want. I was third in BBC Sports Personality behind Princess Ann and George Best, then 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 is Eamonn Andrews with his big red book!
“I didn’t want to retire, but it was the circumstances. 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 number 10.”
A family statement released last night said: “Barry John died peacefully today at the University Hospital of Wales, surrounded by his loving wife and four children. He was a loving Dadcu to his 11 grandchildren and much-loved brother.”
John was 79, and his death has re-ignited the debate over who was the greatest Welsh rugby player of all time – Barry or Gareth.
Edwards was voted “Player of the Century” at the start of 2000, but John also had his supporters – including JPR, who described him as: “Without doubt, the greatest player I played with.”
The loss of two Welsh greats so soon after each other has plunged the game into mourning.
The Lions paid tribute to John on their official website, saying: “Truly one of the greatest. We are hugely saddened that the great Barry John has passed away at the age of 79.
“Barry inspired so many and will forever be remembered for how much he gave to the sport.”
Cardiff, where he spent most of his club career after switching from Llanelli, also hailed his contribution to the game.
Their statement read: “We are absolutely devastated to learn of the passing of Barry John. One of the greatest players to pull on the Blue and Black and what a partnership he shared with Sir Gareth. An absolute icon who will be dearly missed.”
And one of his successors in the Welsh No 10 shirt, Jonathan Davies, added another poignant tribute.
He said: “RIP Barry, another one of my heroes sadly gone. It’s very, very sad. To be nicknamed ‘The King’, I think that says it all, especially in New Zealand,
“I was very fortunate, I met Barry when I was very young. I went to the same school as Barry, obviously not at the same time. He was a legend, from the day I walked into those school gates. He was just a great player, and a lovely man.”