It is frightening to think how brilliant Barry John would have been in the modern era

Barry John evades Fergus Slattery at Cardiff Arms Park in 1971
As a fly-half, Barry John was the complete package - Shutterstock
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Barry John truly was rugby’s original superstar. There were great players before him and after him, but very few punctuated the wider public consciousness like John did. He played in such a way that he forever changed the expectations for what a fly-half could and should be.

John had already played a key role in the great 1971 Wales Grand Slam but what really catapulted him to a new level of fame for a rugby player were his exploits on that year’s Lions tour to New Zealand.

No Lions team had ever won in New Zealand before – and no Lions team has since. John was imperious in those four Tests, which the Lions won 2-1, and finished with 30 of the Lions’ 48 points. He was so good that the New Zealand press labelled him ‘The King’. That in many ways is the ultimate accolade because respect is so hard to come by in New Zealand for those from the northern hemisphere. That he received that level of acclaim shows how highly regarded he was.

Barry John is pursued by Tane Norton of New Zealand during the first Lions Test in 1971
Barry John (with the ball) was nicknamed 'The King' in New Zealand - Getty Images

Every rugby fan who was alive at that time will remember where they were for that 1971 Lions tour. I remember I was playing cricket at the time and all we did in the clubhouse was talk about Barry John, his half-back partner Gareth Edwards and the Lions. What stood out was how calm he was under pressure. He scored that try in the third Test in Wellington when Edwards makes the break, he follows it through and scores under the posts. To be the fly-half of any victorious Lions team puts you on a certain pedestal. To be the only fly-half to have won in New Zealand puts you on an even higher platform.

As a fly-half, John was the complete package. He was really far ahead of his time with his range and quality of kicking. He kicked the ball a lot but no one ever criticised him because he so rarely put a bad kick in. He never kicked mindlessly. His kicks were attacking and were designed to cause problems for the opposition.

‘He was the No 10 of No 10s’

With ball in hand, John was a devastating runner. His acceleration was something else. You also have to remember that the pitches in the 1970s were so heavy to run on. If he got up a head of speed, he would leave players flatfooted or skidding on their backsides.

Then there was his calmness. He never seem hurried or hassled. He was not afraid of trying things, whether it was kicking, running or acting as a support runner. He was the No 10 of No 10s and it is frightening to think how brilliant he would have been in the modern era.

Back then, the only time you got a new ball was when you played international rugby, unless you played for Scotland when they tried to make you play another game with it. Then there were the pitches, which often became mudbaths in the winter. Cardiff Arms Park did not have a lot of grass on it. That showed how skillful he was in that environment in those circumstances.

‘He was literally treated as royalty’

He was part of a golden generation of Welsh players and sadly so many of them have been taken from us recently such as JPR Williams, Phil Bennett, Clive Rowland and John Dawes. The level of attention he received in Wales cannot have been easy to deal with. The story about the woman curtsying to him shows that he was literally treated as royalty.

Still, I remember how surprising it was when the news broke that he was retiring at just 27 years old. Players just did not walk away like that back then. The same year that he retired was the year that I won my first cap so I never got to play against him.

Unfortunately for Scotland, his mantle was immediately picked up by the wonderful Phil Bennett. With Cliff Morgan coming before him, John was part of that famous Wales fly-half factory. It did mean that those successors who got to wear the Welsh No 10 jersey had a lot of responsibility to play a special brand of rugby. He set a bar that was almost impossible to follow.

John also changed the expectations for fly-halves in general. He was a brilliant role model. He had such a broad range of kicking, he could put in all the different kicks and he was such a dangerous runner. He also had that confidence to take a risk. He was not someone who you would say was affected by playing under pressure. He played with a smile on his face and brought smiles to everyone lucky enough to have watched him play.

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