They say Barry John, king of half-backs, decided to quit rugby when a bank teller in Rhyl offered him a curtsy. That’s how it goes in some narratives, anyway. In other cases it was a nurse in Swansea, or a young mother who told her son to reach out and touch his hand at the Eisteddfod, or the man who caused a retreat in Queen Street when he left his car idling in traffic so he could. ask him to shake his hand, or the children who crowded to look at him when they got a hint that he stopped at the local garage to fix his car. “Living in a goldfish bowl,” John said when explaining why he retired, “isn’t alive at all.”
John died last Sunday at the age of 79. There will be a moment of applause for him, and his teammate JPR Williams, as well as former England captain Mike Weston, at Twickenham on Saturday. John’s obituary was a reminder that the game in Wales is a little different to the one they play in England. There are 54,685 registered rugby players in Wales, spread across 276 clubs, amongst a population of just over 3 million people. It is one corner of Britain where rugby is not a minority sport. John might have preferred it if he had.
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“I am not a god, nor a prince, nor a healer, but an ordinary man,” he wrote, and he lost being able to live as one. The irony was that his decision to quit the game when he did, at 27, burned his myth.
The past is still alive in Welsh rugby. There is no escaping it. Especially when they play England. Warren Gatland has been talking about it this week, with his captain, Dafydd Jenkins, and his outside centre, George North, perhaps the only superstar left in his young team. It’s a rivalry that goes all the way back to 1881, but something that was really forged in the years when JPR, Gerald, Gareth, Phil, Merv the Swerve and all the rest of them met, no last names needed , the English inside out, year. after a year. Welsh rugby has had a sepia tinge since the 1980s, just like West Indian cricket.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Welsh rugby. The national federation has carried out an independent report into its culture, which found it could be a “toxic”, “unmitigated”, and “unfriendly” workplace. The regional teams are struggling, there were vicious leagues, and resignations, about the reform of the professional game, and the results of the men’s national team, whose success in the last ten years has helped to cover all the underlying problems. worse progress as one generation of players has given way to the next.
Gatland was supposed to use that press conference to announce his squad for the game, but he had already revealed it 24 hours earlier. He went ahead of schedule, and without warning, because he was worried about the way the team had leaked the previous week. The decision to go ahead with the announcement soon reached the press, and the conference began with a long back and forth between him and a handful of Welsh journalists about the state of relations between the team and the media. “I think,” Gatland said at one point, “we’re stuck in a vortex of negativity around the game in Wales.”
There is another side to the story. There is always. Geraint John, community director of the Welsh Rugby Union, was one of those same kids who idolized Barry John. “I was nine in 1971, so my first experience of rugby was the ’71 Lions tour,” he says. “My heroes were JPR, Gareth Edwards and Barry John. The first game I ever saw was Barbarians 1973 v New Zealand, I went with my dad, so that’s how I was brought up.”
As Gatland gave his press conference, John was at a media event at the Principality Stadium, announcing the launch of the WRU’s new apprenticeship scheme, run in partnership with Cardiff City University. Jenkins’ predecessor as captain, Dewi Lake, was one of the WRU’s apprentices, as was Kelsey Jones, who plays for the women’s team. Other graduates are working as hub officers or club development officers.
“Rugby in Wales doesn’t just happen at 2.30pm on a Saturday afternoon,” says John. “Because rugby matters in Wales. People still want it, families still have that passion for it, it’s still embedded in the culture.” He speaks of clubs as vital parts of the community, spaces where everyone is welcome, “even if it’s an 80-year-old who wants to pop in for a cup of tea”. The challenge, he explains, is that the communities themselves are changing. And quickly. “I visit clubs where people will say to me, ‘We used to play this number of people,'” says John, “and I say back, ‘Yeah, but we used to have an odd 160, too.’
“You see new towns being built outside of Cardiff, new schools, so the challenge is how do we make rugby available to that group of people?” On the flip side there are towns where the population is decreasing. “Take my mother, she’s 90, and there’s nothing at home anymore, there used to be two comprehensives, but now there’s only one. It is the same in one of the areas where my father in law lived. There is no school now. The local rugby club thrived because of that school, but how long will it be able to survive without it?”
At the same time, the demographics of the playing population are also changing.
“If you look at the affluent areas, the clubs are full of minis, juniors, young people, there are a lot of people,” says John, “but I was speaking to a principal recently who told us, ‘I’m not worried about . 10% play rugby, I’m worried about the 90% who can’t afford it.” The WRU runs a Fit and Fed program in deprived areas during the summer holidays, which provides breakfast and lunch to almost 15,000 children who normally rely on free school meals for nutrition. Also recently purchased, and distributed, 5,000 pairs of boots for communal use.
The talent is still there, as it was in Barry John’s day. Whether Wales win or lose, there will be plenty of them on the Twickenham pitch again on Saturday, young lads, some of them wet behind the ears in the professional game but with all the intelligence of test players. And there’s also the enthusiasm, and the excitement of this outfit, in particular. “Listen to Alex Mann talking about winning his first cap,” says John, “hear him say it was the proudest day of his life, and you have to believe that the game still burns in people’s hearts. And if we could win on Saturday…”