They say that Barry John, the king of fly halves, finally decided to quit rugby when a bank cashier in Rhyl offered him a bow. At least that’s how it goes in some stories. In other cases it was a nurse in Swansea, or a young mother telling her son to touch his hand at the Eisteddfod, or the man who caused a traffic jam in Queen Street when he left his car idling in the traffic so he asks him for a handshake, or the kids who stood around him staring when they got a tip that he had stopped by the local garage to get his car repaired. “Living in a goldfish bowl,” John said when explaining why he retired, “isn’t living at all.”
John passed away last Sunday at the age of 79. There will be a minute’s applause for him, and his teammate JPR Williams, as well as old England captain Mike Weston, at Twickenham on Saturday. John’s obituaries reminded us that the game in Wales is a little different to the game they play in England. There are 54,685 registered rugby players in Wales, spread across 276 clubs, in a population of just over 3 million people. It’s a corner of Britain where rugby is not a minority sport. John might have preferred it if it were.
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“I am not a god, or a prince, or a healer, but an ordinary man,” he wrote, and he missed living as such. The irony was that his decision to leave the game at the age of 27 only further fueled his myth.
The past remains ever present in Welsh rugby. There is no escape. Especially when they play against England. Warren Gatland has spoken about it this week, as have his captain, Dafydd Jenkins, and his outside centre, George North, who may be the only superstar left in his young team. It’s a rivalry that dates back to 1881, but it really emerged in the years when JPR, Gerald, Gareth, Phil, Merv the Swerve and the rest of them, no surnames needed, beat the English inside out. year after year. Welsh rugby had a sepia tint since the 1980s, as did West Indian cricket.
It’s been a tough few years for Welsh rugby. The national federation has carried out an independent report on its culture, which found it could be a ‘toxic’, ‘ruthless’ and ‘even vengeful’ workplace. The regional teams are struggling, there have been intense arguments and dismissal measures due to the reform of professional football and the results of the men’s national team, whose success over the last decade has helped to cover up all the underlying problems, which are taking a turn for the worse as one generation of players has made way for the next.
Gatland was supposed to use that press conference to announce his team for the match, but he had already announced that 24 hours earlier. He went ahead of schedule, and without warning, because he was annoyed with the way the team had been leaked the week before. The decision to bring forward the announcement had left the press short and the conference started with a lengthy back-and-forth between him and a handful of Welsh journalists about the state of the team’s relationship with the media. “I feel,” Gatland said at one point, “that we are stuck in a vortex of negativity around the Wales game.”
There is another side to the story. That’s always there. Geraint John, the community director of the WRU, was one of those same children who idolized Barry John. “I was nine in 1971, so my first real rugby experience was the ’71 Lions tour,” he says. “My heroes were JPR, Gareth Edwards and Barry John. The first match I ever saw was the 1973 Barbarians v New Zealand. I went with my dad, so that’s what I grew up with.
While Gatland was giving his press conference, John was at a media event at the Principality Stadium, where he announced the launch of a new WRU apprenticeship programme, run in partnership with Cardiff Metropolitan University. Jenkins’ predecessor as captain, Dewi Lake, was one of the WRU students, as was Kelsey Jones, who plays for the women’s team. Other graduates work as hub officers or club development officers.
“Rugby in Wales isn’t just what happens at 2.30pm on a Saturday afternoon,” says John. “Because rugby is important in Wales. People still want it, families still have that passion for it, it’s still embedded in the culture.” He talks about 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 fast. “I go to clubs where people say to me, ‘There used to be so many people playing,’” says John, “and I say back, ‘Yes, but we used to have about 160 mines.’
“You see new towns being built outside Cardiff, new schools, so the challenge for us is how can we bring rugby to that group of people?” The downside is that there are cities where the population is shrinking. “Take my mother, she is 90, and there is nothing left in her town. There used to be two comprehensive institutions, but now there is only one. The same goes for one of the neighborhoods where my father-in-law lived. There is no school there at all now. The local rugby club thrived thanks to that school, but how long will it survive without it?
At the same time, the demographics of the player population are also changing.
“If you look in the affluent areas, the clubs are full of minis, juniors, youngsters, there are huge numbers there,” says John, “but I spoke to a director recently who told us, ‘I’m not worried about the 10% who play rugby, I worry about the 90% who can’t afford it.'” The WRU runs a Fit and Fed program in deprived areas during the summer holidays, providing breakfast and lunch to almost 15,000 children who normally play rugby. rely on free school meals for their nutrition. They have also recently purchased and distributed 5,000 pairs of boots for community use.
The talent is still there, just like in Barry John’s day. Whether Wales win or lose, they will be able to enjoy it to the fullest again on the Twickenham pitch on Saturday, young kids, some of them, who are wet behind the ears in the professional game, but have what it takes to be Test match players are. And the enthusiasm is there too, and the excitement around this fixture in particular. “Listen to Alex Mann talk about winning his first cap,” says John, “hear him say it was the proudest day of his life, and you have to believe the game is still burning in people’s hearts. And if we could only win on Saturday…’