The greatest fly-halves of all time: Barry John
Another world class Welsh fly-half, Barry John
Major teams: Llanelli, Cardiff
Test span: 1966-72
Wales caps: 25 (25 starts)
Lions caps: 5 (5 starts)
Test points: 120 (6T, 9C, 18P, 10DG)
It was the New Zealand press that coined Barry John’s nickname – ‘The King’ – and the All Blacks were certainly subject to some of the fly-half’s seminal displays over a fleeting but celebrated career.
Alongside half-back partner Gareth Edwards, he would become the scourge of the Kiwis, starting in 1967 when the duo combined to great effect for East Wales in a 3-3 draw – the closest New Zealand would come to losing all trip.
John’s gliding running style earned him Barbarians selection before four starts in the 1968 Five Nations and a place on the Lions tour to South Africa, where he broke his collarbone 15 minutes into the first Test.
Injuries were a constant concern for John due to his slight frame, though two tries – one in a 30-9 thrashing of England – book-ended the 1969 Five Nations. Two years later he rubber-stamped a Welsh Grand Slam by ghosting through France’s blindside defence for a 9-5 victory.
That foreshadowed John’s coup de grace, a starring role in the Lions’ 2-1 series success against the All Blacks.
In the first Test in Dunedin, he tormented Fergie McCormick so much with his tactical kicking that the full-back never played for his country again, and an early drop-goal, two conversions and another try – finishing off an instinctive break from Edwards – paved the way for the 13-3 third-Test win in Wellington that ensured the Lions couldn’t lose the series.
John made just as big a splash in the provincial fixtures, once taunting Hawkes Bay opponents with sleight of hand and even sitting on the ball in protest at their foul play.
Only John Dawes played more games than him on that tour and he finished it with 194 points in 17 matches – a Lions record. Two compatriots from that team sum up John’s rare gifts. Gerald Davies suggested “the game would bend to his will and no one else’s”, while Edwards marvelled at his “cool superiority that spread to others”.
Following 35 points in comprehensive triumphs over England, Scotland and France to begin 1972, John walked away, consumed by the claustrophobia of public adoration. A head cashier curtsied to him at a bank and John retired to escape the ‘goldfish bowl’.
Though only 27, his 30 Tests had forged a prodigious legacy.