My favourite game: Cardiff v Coventry at Cardiff Arms Park, 1972 | Sport

There are many images of Barry John, but a personal favourite is of the outside-half sitting on the ball where the touchline met the 22 on the side of the main stand as Cardiff slid towards defeat against a club that was then one of the strongest in Britain. He wore the insouciance of someone watching his dog retrieve a stick as he waited for a Coventry player to revive from the ministration of what passed then for a medic, someone armed with a bucket of water and a sponge. It took a while and, with Cardiff having been awarded a penalty, the opposition retreated behind their line in readiness for John’s attempt at goal.

There did not seem much to concern them, leading 15-3 against a side they had beaten 22-10 at Coundon Road the previous September. They fielded seven England internationals with two other players, Peter Preece and Geoff Evans, winning their first caps later in the year. Cardiff had two asterisks, but what a pair, John and his half-back partner Gareth Edwards. They had only recently returned to action after a long lay-off following the successful Lions tour to New Zealand. It was not a vintage period for the Arms Park club whose vet captain John James did not play all season after jabbing himself with cow vaccine.

But they had John, in his prime at 27. He was to make his final break four months later – for freedom after feeling trapped by fame having been hailed as the King after his return from New Zealand and treated with royal reverence. While Edwards was a player who tended to reserve his best for Wales and, protecting his hamstrings, ration his club appearances, John treated each match the same, there to be won, by whatever means it took.

Players, including Barry John and Gareth Edwards (seated on ground right and left respectively), and staff of Cardiff rugby club ahead of the 1971-72 season.

As he sat on the ball, he plotted. Part of the reason that made him stand out was that he thought a few moves ahead of everyone, a mixture of Machiavelli and Napoleon whose slight frame disguised his fierce competitiveness. As the spongeman made his way off the field, John slowly rose to his feet and addressed the referee, who nodded in response. Casually, he bent down to address the ball before tapping it and running to the line as his opponents, who had not checked whether he had indicated he was going for goal, gawped incredulously.


He showed his mortality by missing the conversion, but the crowd sensed the turning of the tide and became vocal. Cardiff’s pack, full of gnarled forwards who either just failed to get a Wales cap or, in the case of the second row Ian Robinson, collected two in 1974, got on top. Four of the Coventry team had been part of the England side that had collapsed next door the year before and they had a feeling of deja vu as John’s boot put Cardiff in front on a day when he went through the card.

The front cover and teamsheets from the match programme.

The front cover and teamsheets from the match programme. Photograph: rugbyrelics.com

And then came the coup de grace. Few club matches were televised then, confining most of John’s feats with Cardiff to memory, which can play tricks, but the sight of his making an arcing run to the spot where he traded a penalty for a try remains indelibly imprinted. It became clear, as three defenders converged on him, that he was not going to make it but still he went on. At the point just before the three pounced on him, he passed blindly out of the back of his right hand. Chugging up in support, the No 8 Carl Smith did not have to break his stride, only catch the ball with the defence occupied elsewhere.

It was only a friendly, but the reaction to the 22-15 victory was as if a league had been won. A week later, John and Edwards were at Twickenham, helping Wales to victory over England, another day, another collar.

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