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Gareth Edwards

Sir Gareth Edwards on Barry John

Barry John, who died at the age of 79 this week, played with Gareth Edwards for Cardiff, the Barbarians, Wales and the British & Irish Lions. They won Triple Crowns, a Grand Slam and a Lions test series together on the field, and were lifelong friends off it.

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They played a then record 23 times together for Wales as a half-back unit and five more times for the Lions. They are universally recognised as one of the greatest partnerships in the history of the game.

“There is no doubt that the world of sport – and Welsh rugby in particular – has lost a legendary figure following the death of my great mate, Barry John,” said Sir Gareth.

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“He was one of a kind, a mercurial figure on the field and was a catalyst for so much success for Wales and the British & Irish Lions.

“I spoke to him only last week and he seemed in good cheer. I was devastated, as were my family and so many others to hear the news of his passing. All our thoughts are with his wife Jan and his family.

“We played against each other in a Wales trial at Maesteg in 1966 and were then picked together for the Probables in another trial at the beginning of 1967. We were both students then – he was at Trinity College, Carmarthen and I was at Cardiff Training College – and I rang him up and suggested we should meet before we played together.

“I had a car and was happy to drive from Cardiff, so we arranged to meet on a pitch in Carmarthen. When I arrived at Trinity College, Barry was nowhere to be found. There I was, looking immaculate in my green college tracksuit, boots in hand, ready for action, but Barry had apparently forgotten about our meeting.

“I bumped into someone I knew and he said he’d seen Barry enjoying himself at a party the night before. He went off and found him and when he eventually turned up, he looked a bit scruffy and didn’t have any boots, just plimsoles.

“I was concerned about my pass, because everyone said it wasn’t very good, and so we had a bit of a throw about. He was slipping all over the place and in the end he came up with the immortal line, ‘Gar, you just throw it and I’ll catch it!’ And that’s how it was for us from there on.

“We played in the trial at St Helen’s, Swansea, but I only passed the ball to him once. He went off on a mesmerising run, beat three or four people, but then got turned over and cut his knee quite badly. He went off, but still got picked to play against Scotland in the first Five Nations game.

“Billy Hullin was his scrum half for that game and I was a travelling reserve. Wales lost at Murrayfield and things changed in the selectors’ minds. David Watkins came back in as outside half, and I was eventually given a chance out in France and then against England.

“In the summer of 1967, Barry switched from Llanelli to Cardiff and we became club-mates. That changed everything. We were picked together for the first time for Wales to play against New Zealand later that year and then we played for East Wales against the All Blacks in a drawn game.

“They scored in the last minute to level the score and then Barry sent a drop goal inches wide with a kick that could have won it for us. We were both selected for the Lions tour to South Africa in 1968 and played together in the first Test. Unfortunately, Barry broke his collarbone. He would have been sensational on those hard grounds in that series had he stayed fit.”

It didn’t take long for Barry to shine, helping Wales to win a Triple Crown in 1969, a Grand Slam in 1971 and then to star on his second Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971. Edwards played inside him throughout those successes, establishing a Welsh record of 23 games together as a half-back pair.

“His vision was fantastic and he always seemed to have time on his side. He would scan the field, decide what he wanted to do and then do it. He was simply sensational in New Zealand with the Lions,” recalled Edwards.

“The confidence oozed out of him and he had a positive impact on everyone he played with. He was ‘Cool Hand Luke’ throughout New Zealand, never panicking, never changing and almost unplayable.

“We played Hawkes Bay in a feisty game on that tour and as the temperature rose Barry tapped his chest as I put the ball into a scrum to indicate he wanted the ball to come back to him deep. He was standing inside our 25, as it was then, and after I’d passed it to him, he put the ball on the ground and sat on it.

“The home back row were charging off the scrum to try to get to him, but they were completely put off by this audacious action and stopped. He got back up, kicked the ball out of the ground and gave them a look of complete and utter disdain.

“That was his take on their antics. ‘Now let’s back to playing proper rugby’ he was saying to them in his mind.

“He completely tormented Fergie McCormick in the first Test, and he never played for the All Blacks again. He was in his pomp on that tour and was christened the ‘King’ by the New Zealand media.

“That wasn’t the first time he had been called that. Ian Robinson, our Cardiff teammate, was the first to christen him ‘King John’ in the dressing room at the Arms Park, but it was a phrase that stuck.

“Lots of people ask me to compare Barry with the other great outside half I played with for Wales, Phil Bennett. Phil had to have the ball in his hands before he decided what he was going to do, whereas Barry’s computer like brain was always scanning and summing up his options before he got hold of the ball.

“Barry didn’t have the shuddering sidestep of Cliff Jones, Cliff Morgan, Dai Watkins or Phil, but he was lithe and much quicker than people gave him credit for, and he could simply glide past people.

“On top of that, he was a fantastic kicker and was never afraid to try things on the international stage that were out of the ordinary, or not in the play book.”

Barry eventually gave up the game at the age of 27 when he was at the peak of his powers. It came as a shock to everyone.

“Everything changed after we came back from the Lions tour in 1971. He returned as a real superstar and he couldn’t walk down the street without a string of people stopping him and asking for an autograph or asking to shake his hand.

“When he started talking about giving up we all thought he was joking. I was looking forward to playing at least another five years with him at Cardiff and having some real fun.

“But he told us ahead of his final game, the Barry John XV v Carwyn James XV at the Arms Park to make the most of it because he was then going to retire. I didn’t believe him, so it still came as a shock when he did hang up his boots.

“What a player, teammate, friend he was. He may be gone, but he will never, ever be forgotten.”

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