Saturday 25 March 2017

Barry John: ‘No, I don’t enjoy modern game’

David Kelly

David Kelly

As one of the anointed few to populate Welsh rugby's magic circle, Barry John rarely had to pause when taking stock of a situation.

As fellow 1971 tourist Sean Lynch reminisced this week, John could punt the old, hand-stitched leather balls on a six-pence, even though they dripped with mud and weighed as much as two-year-old child.

Oh, and he could play a bit too, as this internet clip will prove -- www.youtube.com /watch?v=jVK1XU8k2AA -- although many of tomorrow's Lansdowne Road attendance will never have witnessed his genius in the flesh.

He knew when to quit, too. At just 27, he walked away from the sport while at the peak of his formidable powers.

And when he alights upon the subject of Ronan O'Gara's hastily withdrawn threat to retire midway through the World Cup, he does so with sympathy, not sourness. Nevertheless, his message is blunt.

honest

"I would have thought Ronan would have done a Jonny Wilkinson, concentrated on Munster and said good luck to whoever stayed on in the Irish camp," says the 1971 Grand Slam winner.

"And more, Ireland should be thinking about developing a younger player to back up Jonny Sexton at out-half. The immediate year after a World Cup is the time to change.

"It's four years away but you have to start somewhere and give young guys a chance. But having said that Stephen Jones is in our squad because Rhys Priestland was a doubt call."

Despite his beliefs, John remains a fan of O'Gara's.

"If Ronan is playing at any stage, Ireland will know full well how the game is going to pan out. And Ronan is a master of that. I'm a great admirer of his career. It will be more positional and standard play with him. And Wales will find it difficult to counter that."

You remind him that Dublin has been a cold port of call for his countrymen over the years. Even the great Wales side lost here, a 14-0 defeat in 1970.

"Thanks for that! I was having a good day and now you've ruined my lunch!" Remarkably, Wales were prepared to ditch the erratic Cardiff player there and then; just think, the course of rugby union might have been irrevocably altered.

Mercifully, John managed to retain the faith of his wary selectors.

He became the propelling force of a glorious technicolour age of Welsh supremacy, a soaring red presence whose emergence on our TV screens each spring was as eagerly received as the first cuckoo.

He wasn't always a butterfly on the field; contemporaries still wince when they recall the crunching tackle on French forward Benoit Dauga that ultimately ensured Wales would clinch the Grand Slam at the Stade Colombes.

Like the prophet in his own land, he had as many critics as cheerleaders. Once, after he dropped four goals to help Cardiff beat his old club Llanelli, a supporter approached him.

"Should be ashamed to be a rugby player if you have to win matches like that, with drop goals," he carped, whereupon he punched the stunned John in the face.

The farther he left home, the greater his acclaim. On the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971, there was a famous billboard asking 'What would you do if God came back to earth?'

Underneath, somebody scrawled 'he's already here and playing 10 for the Lions.'

Just as in his playing career, John is keener to live in the moment rather than wallow in the past. "Nostalgia means nothing to me," he will respond when pressed. And so it is that this Six Nations campaign is all that consumes him.

"A young player like George North has said that if we don't build on the World Cup performances, it will be a terrible waste. I think they've something special in them for this championship.

"I doubt any team will win the Grand Slam. So many of the teams are capable of beating each other. But I think Wales are definitely good enough to win the championship.

"But this Sunday, Wales are going to miss their locks and that will hurt them. Ryan Jones could be a big player for us because he's been the form man on the Welsh scene. And we've the most exciting back-row going.

"We don't know much about Mike Phillips or James Hook since the World Cup because they've been playing in France. But they're seasoned players now and that should help."

He's a fan of Warren Gatland and marks him down as the next Lions coach, but John also recalls that within the past two years Wales went eight games without a win.

"In international sport, it's the 'W' column that counts. And even with the wonderful positive nature of the World Cup, the 'W' column is not clever over the last 12 or 13 games. It's very fickle at the top. If you go through a bad patch, the pressure comes back on."

John may not reflect much, but deep down the modern game numbs his soul. Ask him if he enjoys rugby now, and the answer is resignedly negative.

"No, I don't enjoy it. The answer is no. As a product, it's going backwards. The lawmakers have a real problem, particularly with the scrum. It's more like American Football than even rugby league.

"It's not the game that I know. But it's the same song with a different beat. This is the game the young people know. I must confess, if I leave the room to go out for 10 minutes, I don't miss much. That's the sad thing."

Always incorrectly compared to George Best, John never demonstratively self-destructed his talents; he merely withdrew them earlier than others expected.

After a little girl curtsied at the player nicknamed 'The King', John knew that it had all become too much. The Fame Monster devoured him; not the other way around. The current vogue for rugby players to ape footballers dismays him.

"They've fantastic careers and they're set up for life," he says sadly.

"Everyone can make one mistake. But to keep doing it? I can't understand it. They're missing the chance to set up a glorious life, you know?"

From one who packed so much into so little time, it's a maxim that deserves repeating.

Irish Independent

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