Roger Alton

Farewell to rugby’s King John

[Getty Images]

You couldn’t miss the heartbreaking irony of one of the greatest rugby players who ever pulled on his boots passing away just as the latest tournament was getting under way featuring 18-stone behemoths smashing into each other. Barry John, who retired at 27 and died last Sunday at 79, could have walked through brick walls and emerged unscathed. Was he the finest fly-half ever? He was certainly the most beautiful to watch. He played just 25 games for Wales and a handful for the British and Irish Lions, including the 1971 tour of New Zealand when he helped them to their only series victory against the All Blacks. It was then that the Kiwi press, not known for its admiration of players not wearing black, christened him ‘King John’.

He shimmered and swerved, side-stepped, dummied and passed, and kicked with pinpoint accuracy 

He shimmered and swerved, sidestepped, dummied and passed, and kicked with pinpoint accuracy. ‘You throw it, I’ll catch it,’ he told scrum half Gareth Edwards: that was their tactical briefing. It was as if he was in another dimension of time and place, as the official history of Welsh rugby put it. Would he have wanted to play now? Peter Jackson wrote in the Daily Mail that John was not convinced by the modern game. ‘It’s not a question of would I play now, but would I want to play? No I wouldn’t. It used to be a game you played to find space and run into it. Now they look for people to run into.’

He left the game in 1972, unable to endure the adulation that came with his talent. His later life was scarred by drink, divorce and depression. We mere mortals find it difficult to understand why someone blessed with John’s talent packed it in at the moment he did.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in