The former Cardiff, Wales and British & Irish Lions No 10 continues to be the standard bearer for all Welsh outside halves. Some say he was the greatest of all-time, topping even the likes of Cliff Jones, Cliff Morgan, David Watkins, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, Neil Jenkins, Stephen Jones and Dan Biggar.
Tonight you will be able to make your own assessment when S4C screens the last game in which he played before he rocked the rugby world by announcing his retirement at the age of 27.
He had a Grand Slam, two Triple Crowns and, of course, that remarkable series win over New Zealand with the 1971 Lions to look back on. He was branded ‘King Barry’ by the Kiwis on that tour for the part he played in steering the Lions their only series victory on New Zealand soil.
He made the whole country marvel at the way he played the game. Was he better than Dan Carter? Perhaps it is more, was Dan Carter as good as him? Does Jonny Wilkinson get close by comparison?
You can make up your own mind if you tune in tonight to catch a glimpse of a very special match – Carwyn James XV v Barry John XV – played at the old National Ground, Cardiff Arms Park on 26 April, 1972.
Such was the clamour to watch the game, which was staged to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the game had to be switched from the smaller Arms Park. There were 35,000 in the ground to see Barry’s side win a thriller, 32-28.
It proved to be the last time ‘King Barry’ would lace up his boots. Nine days later he retired at the age of 27.
His shock decision to walk away from rugby at the age of just 27 left a nation stunned – but not his one-time young rival, Phil Bennett. It was one of the biggest sports stories of the 1970s and the re-run, which includes rare footage, may offer a few salient clues as to why a sportsman, who, perhaps, was not even at the peak of his powers, decided to announce his retirement at such a young age.
There is a moment near the end when commentator John Evans asks James – who shared the broadcast duties as well selection – if that might be the last time they see John play at the National Stadium, to which the legendary coach gives a characteristically enigmatic reply.
The question proved to be very perceptive and even though most Welsh supporters found the news as perplexing as it was shocking, the man wearing No.10 for the opposition that midweek afternoon was less surprised.
“For the public back then, Barry’s decision was a huge sensation – but I have to admit that it was less of a shock to me,” says Bennett, who was 23 at the time and very much the heir to John’s kingdom.
“He was a huge star, there would be pictures of him and George Best in the newspapers of the day because that was the level of fame he’d had since coming back from New Zealand with the Lions in 1971.
“But Barry wasn’t a film star. He was young guy from a West Wales village and it was already being talked about that he found that side of things quite difficult.
“He’d go for a pint and there would be six blokes queuing up to get an autograph and ask him questions. He would go to some function and no-one would give him a minute’s peace.
“So, there were rumours among the boys that he wasn’t happy. You have to remember this was an amateur game. Barry played for fun, for the enjoyment. Yes, he wanted to win every game he played, but it wasn’t life and death to him and it wasn’t his job.”
The game itself was, in effect, a game between a Wales XV and a quasi-Lions XV. In the end the Barry John XV won 32-28 – a victory for the apprentice over the master in the sense that Barry had been the playmaking star of the 1971 Lions and James was the string-pulling coach.
In all, 22 of the Lions who had made history in beating the All Blacks less than a year before, took the field on what was a rare spring treat in an era when Wales played as few as three home matches a season.
John scored both the first try and the last try, book-ending the match and adding a neat punctuation stop to his career. Both scores are worth watching.
And then, puff . . . the player who ghosted through spaces others couldn’t even see, was gone. Luckily for Wales, Bennett was on hand to continue the razzle-dazzle for the remainder of the Seventies, but that didn’t soften the sense of loss even for the inheritor of the king’s crown.
“When the news came, I wasn’t shocked,” says Bennett. “I was more saddened by it. Yes, part of me thought it might help my own chances of getting picked to start for Wales, but hand on heart, I wasn’t jumping for joy. I was disappointed he was feeling unhappy and felt he had to turn away from the game and his teammates.
“There was talk at the time about commercial opportunities for him and that he could earn money from retiring. You have to remember we were all amateurs and both Barry and Gareth Edwards, for all their fame, were not getting paid to play rugby.
“Without any doubt, Barry was one of the greatest players we had ever produced. Some boys left to go and play rugby league, but Barry stopped because he’d had enough of the attention.
“I don’t recall any talk immediately after the match, but there might have been. If there was, it wouldn’t have been debated for hours. Some of us worked in the steelworks, or were labouring. We had to get up at 6am.”
It was said the final straw for John was when he opened a branch of the Midland Bank, a young woman curtsied before the King.
It was an abdication. And, at least until the Scarlets and the Barbarians played the All Blacks the following season, there was great sadness in the kingdom.
S4C – Tuesday, May 26 at 9.00pm – Urdd 50: Barry John XV v Carwyn James XV