Lions Legends: Barry John

Barry John will go down in history as one of the greatest British & Irish Lions of all time [more]

Lions Legends: Barry John

Barry John will go down in history as one of the greatest British & Irish Lions of all time but it could have been very different after he broke his collarbone in the opening Test of the 1968 Tour of South Africa.

The 25-cap Wales legend would go on to play a starring role three years later on the iconic 1971 British & Irish Lions Tour of New Zealand.

He finished top Test points scorer as the Lions recorded their first and so far only series win against the All Blacks.

However, John almost didn’t even go on the tour after a physically taxing Grand Slam-winning Five Nations campaign with Wales.

The strength of Welsh rugby at that time was incredible. We were all on top of each other and every game was a local derby.

If you were part of one of the top teams, every game was an unofficial Welsh trial. It was crazy.

I knew we had a good side in the making and coaching was just spawning in ‘66/67. In around ‘68/69 is when we really gelled and we became a good side.

When it came to the Lions of 1968, I thought I had a chance of selection and they picked Gareth [Edwards] and me, which was clearly a source of real pride.

The Lions squad of 1968

I felt totally at home in South Africa ahead of the first Test because we were playing what we called on-top-of-the-ground rugby.

There was no mud and you didn’t have to slog your way through terrible pitches and thunderstorms.

We were quietly confident going into the first Test on the back of an unbeaten build-up but unfortunately, I broke my collarbone and that somewhat set the tone. From there, we were plagued by injuries.

I knew as soon as Jan Ellis tackled me that something was wrong, I felt a zing right across my body.

It was a strange one because we were given brand new jerseys for the Test and normally I used to unfold the collar, but for some reason, I didn’t do it.

I took a tap penalty around the ten-yard line and Keith Savage followed me. I should have just given the ball to Keith as he would have been under the posts, but suddenly a shadow came on my inside.

That shadow stuck its hand out and popped me underneath the collar. Jan did not emerge totally unscathed either – when I saw him afterwards, he had badly sprained his finger and it was bent right back.

As a Wales side, we toured Down Under in 1969 and we are still the last Welsh team to have beaten Australia in Australia.

That whetted the appetite for us. We realised on that trip that, two years down the line when the Lions were touring, we had to be there.

The camaraderie between the players in ‘71 was brilliant. When you look at the chemistry of the team itself and then look back to ‘68, several of those boys were the spine of the ‘71 team.

You had Gerald Davies, Gareth [Edwards], myself, Willie John McBride, John Taylor and so many others.

Crucially, the players that came in to supplement that group were brilliant.

We had Mike Gibson, probably the greatest outside back ever, and when people used to ask me about playing, I would say anyone could play fly-half in that team because you’ve got Gareth on the inside and Mike on your outside.

When I looked around the dressing room and saw who was hanging their jerseys up, I thought ‘wow, this group here’.

John enjoyed linking up with the supremely talented Mike Gibson

That said, how we won the first Test [9-3], I will never know.

The All Blacks were unbelievable in the first 20 minutes, I don’t think I touched the ball.

There was no way we would be able to keep them out for four Tests like that but we did keep them out that day and then we were able to counter.

We knew the next three Tests would be difficult and we were beaten 22-12 in Christchurch in the second Test – but we were not disheartened.

We created more chances in the second Test and the way we went about things made us realise we could beat them.

It may sound strange but we were far more confident after defeat than we had been after we had won.

British & Irish Lions Squad 1971

The 1971 tourists

That confidence carried itself to Wellington, when we came out of the blocks quickly.

John Dawes was great that day, he won it before we had even touched that ball.

He told us to go underneath the posts to our right when we came out – he had already won the coin tosses but he did not make the decisions in the tunnel.

It was psychology. He won both tosses, so we had the kick-off and we got to play exactly where we wanted to play.

On a personal note, it was obviously special to play such a big part in the win [John scored 10 points in a 13-3 victory]. The early drop goal settled any nerves and it was a joy to finish a fantastic move for the try which sealed the win.

From then on, we knew we couldn’t lose the series – the All Blacks were in uncharted territory at home.

When the final whistle went at the end of the fourth Test, the 14-14 draw in Auckland, I remember talking to Mike Gibson and looking around the dressing room.

Despite the fact we had won the series, there was a sense of disappointment because we had a chance to go out playing the rugby that we had played throughout.

That was partly down to me because I took safety options rather than the creative options that I had been taking all the way.

It is a great pity that we didn’t go out in the fourth Test and put our wonderful talents on show.

But when you have been away for three and a half months and the big prize is so close, it does a lot to you. You want to safeguard what you have got.

While there was relief when the final whistle went, equally we felt that the last 15 or 20 minutes should have been a celebration of what we had built over the previous three months.

However, it must be remembered that the Tour changed New Zealand’s attitude and outlook towards the game, even during the Tour.

Before we beat Wellington, the number one province in New Zealand, the write-ups had said this was the test of how good the Lions are.

They had several current and former All Blacks in their side but we slaughtered them. We put 40 points on them and it laid down a real marker.

Graham Williams, their captain and a former All Black who was still in contention for the Test side, spoke brilliantly afterwards.

He said that if the All Blacks and the New Zealand people don’t take these boys seriously, God knows what is going to happen.

Fortunately, our performances in the Tests proved they were right to take us seriously – and our set-up was held in such high esteem. It was just a fantastic Tour to be a part of and the memories remain treasured to this day.

Barry John played 25 times for Wales between 1966 and 1972 and started all four Tests for the Lions in New Zealand in 1971, scoring points in every match – Test and regional – that he played in during the Tour. He was part of the Wales team that won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1971 alongside other Lions icons like Sir Gareth Edwards and John Dawes.

Previous story Rugby world pays tribute to Clive Rowlands OBE
Next story The best of Lions content this month