Remembering the laughs of ‘Newks’, an old-school reporter and long-time stalwart of the SJA


It was Stephen Jones, the bard of the Sunday Times sports desk, who found the words to match the moment: “Barry Newcombe,” he said, “was a man without a bad bone in his body.” And you could almost hear the murmurs of approval from all those who had known and worked with Barry down the decades.

‘Newks’ was a sports reporter of the old school. For more than half a century, he covered and uncovered stories, cultivated contacts, met his deadlines and wrote to length. In short, he was a sub-editor’s delight. People trusted him with information, tip-offs and off-the-record briefings, and he never let them down.

This was always his way, from his first job in 1957, with the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. Years later, he would remember his first assignment – Northampton v Headingley, 1958.

He would also recall the eccentric methods of communication: “In my early days I was reporting a rugby match at which I wrote by hand and dropped the material through a hole in the stand. It would then be collected, taken to a phone and the material read out, word by word, to my office. At the end of the game, I went under the stand to check, and there, on the ground, were all my pieces of paper, not one of which had been transmitted. We have moved on.”

Good sport: Barry Newcombe and AP McCoy, our sportsman of the year in 2010

Barry moved on via the Evening Standard, where he was rugby and tennis correspondent, to the Sunday and Daily Express, and eventually as a freelance rugby writer on the Sunday Times. He covered more than fifty Wimbledon finals, a host of Lions tours and endless Five and Six Nations tournaments.

While on the Standard, he occasionally attended big events outside his usual remit; most notably the Ali – Frazier “Thriller in Manilla’ and the Summer Olympics. Like so many of his contemporaries, he selected Munich ’72 as the most tragically memorable event of his career; from the early-morning media alert  which told us that something was happening in the Olympic Village, to the seizure of the hostages, to that chilling moment when – following a cynically reassuring recitation of the night’s events – the German spokesman uttered the devastating punchline: “All the hostages are dead.”

The Standard needed 1,000 words to lead its first edition. Barry dictated them off the top of his head: “I was reassured that all the lessons I’d learned as a trainee held good under pressure,” he reflected.

After such a career, Barry was reluctant to cut his connections with sports journalism. Outside his family, he had always found his greatest delight in the company of journalists.

He revelled in the frivolous gossip, the shameless exaggeration and all the glorious nonsense. He had been both chair and President of the Rugby Union Writers’ Club, now he would become – from 2006 to 2013 — the longest-serving chair of the SJA, chair of the AIPS Rugby Commission and the UK Olympic Press Attache in Sydney, Athens, Beijing and the memorable Games of London 2012.

Towards the end of his time as SJA chair, he won the Doug Gardner Award for distinguished service to the Association. Nobody ever deserved it more.

Yet, for all his offices and all his honours, my enduring memory of Barry Newcombe will be the breezy one-liners, the quick-stepping walk, the urgent jabbing at the bridge of his nose as the specs started to slide. And the laughter. Always the laughter. As another of his rugby-writing colleagues, Alex Spink of the Mirror, put it: “I can’t think of a single instance in Newks’s company which didn’t either start or finish with a laugh.”

All his friends and colleagues in the SJA extend our deepest sympathy to Maureen and all his family for the loss of a man without a bad bone in his body. May he rest in peace.