Barbarians v New Zealand 1973: One of rugby’s greatest games celebrates 50th anniversary
It has been called the greatest rugby try scored in one of the most memorable matches the sport has seen.
Sir Gareth Edwards’ awe-inspiring try for the Barbarians against New Zealand on January 27, 1973 is now 50 years old.
It was a spectacular game in its own right with the Baa-Baas, coached by Carwyn James, triumphing 23-11 over the All Blacks.
The sensational Edwards score in the opening exchanges has stood the test of time.
Seven men combined to create it – six Welshmen in Edwards, Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, John Dawes, Derek Quinnell and Tommy David, plus one Englishman, hooker John Pullin.
The try set the tone for a remarkable match which saw further scores from John Bevan, Fergus Slattery and JPR Williams, while New Zealand responded with two tries from wing Grant Batty.
The ‘fifth Test’
It was New Zealand’s final game of a long winter tour on these shores.
The All Blacks had defeated England, Wales and Scotland – with a draw against Ireland – but also suffered a famous 9-3 defeat against Llanelli in October 1972.
The media billed the Barbarians match as the fifth Test, in a reference to the four-match 1971 British and Irish Lions series in New Zealand which the tourists won 2-1.
The Lions coach and captain were Welsh duo James and Dawes, while there were others in the Barbarians party who had humbled the All Blacks in their own backyard.
It was though still a team coming together just before the match, with a one-hour training session in Penarth the day before.
James was also not strictly allowed to coach the side because that went against the amateur Baa-Baas ethos, with suggestions he gave an ‘illegal’ team-talk before the match.
In contrast to the Barbarians, New Zealand had been together for three months and were looking for revenge.
“Prior to the tour our team manager had decided we would not do the haka on tour and the All Blacks had done it through the course of time,” said All Blacks wing Bryan Williams.
“Then the morning of the Barbarians match and the day before we were practising the haka rather than running through our moves.
“We got onto Cardiff Arms Park and the haka was disgraceful, terrible, and we were down 17-0 before half-time.”
Ah that try which started it all. Immortalised in the words of commentator Cliff Morgan.
“Kirkpatrick to Williams. This is great stuff. Phil Bennett covering, chased by Alistair Scown. Brilliant, Oh, that’s brilliant. John Williams… Bryan Williams, Pullin, John Dawes. Great dummy. David, Tom David, the half-way line. Brilliant by Quinnell. This is Gareth Edwards. A dramatic start…what a score!
The magical move which started the Barbarians rout was famously created by Wales fly-half Bennett.
Early in the game he tracked back towards his own line to collect a kick from New Zealand wing Bryan Williams.
“I take great joy in telling this story because it is regarded as one of the most famous tries of all time,” said Williams.
“I always tell the crowd I am speaking to, that brilliant try would never have been scored without me!
“Ian Kirkpatrick gave me a pass and I burst down the right-hand side and put in a kick into the centre.
“I was always told if your kick lands on the floor rather going to hand, you have a really good chance.
“The ball bounced and normally we would converge on the guy who would go back for it.
“We did converge on him, but unfortunately for us, that guy was Phil Bennett.”
Bennett appeared to be boxed in and most would have expected the ball to be kicked into touch. The man known simply as “Benny” had other ideas.
What followed was a sequence of sizzling side-steps that bamboozled the All Black defenders bearing down on Bennett.
“When I saw Phil initially scurrying back, I thought thank god for that, he has a good footballing sense and we will have a little breather,” recalled Gareth Edwards.
“He did the complete opposite [to kicking] and I was cursing him at the time!
“What happened next will live with me forever. It was the most incredible thing to do that when people least expected it. That typified Phil.
“I had to say thank you Phil for not doing what I had originally wanted him to do.”
Following Barry John’s retirement in 1972, this was the moment when Bennett announced himself to the rugby world.
“We had all seen in patches or moments in matches, Phil had been doing that for ages for Llanelli,” added Edwards.
“Barry had been the dominant fly-half for Wales for four or five years, but Phil was always on the fringes.
“Phil was unplayable at times and we had already seen his performance for Llanelli against New Zealand in 1972.
“Carwyn on that day told him just to do what he would normally do. That was the magic of Phil.”
Bennett fed Wales full-back JPR Williams, who was the victim of a high tackle from Bryan Williams – and later said he was pleased his head was not taken off.
“I gave him a bit of a coat-hanger tackle, but I was trying to wrap him up and he got the ball away anyway,” said Bryan Williams.
That pass was to Pullin, who in turn fed 1971 Lions captain Dawes.
He sliced through with what legendary commentator Cliff Morgan described as a “great dummy”.
Dawes fed David, the back-rower, who like English lock Bob Wilkinson, was an uncapped player in the Barbarians starting side
David was not meant to be playing but Mervyn Davies dropped out on the morning of the game with flu.
“I initially had a phone call from Carwyn saying one of the England second rows had dropped out and would I come in as a replacement,” recalled David.
“I was doing somersaults, but never envisaged myself going on the pitch.
“The previous day I met up with them in Cardiff and we went training and I was in awe because all the top Great Britain and Irish players were there.
“The sad news on the Saturday morning was Mervyn, that great player and wonderful man, dropped out, so all of a sudden I was thrust into the biggest game of my life.
“I was so nervous and could not talk and when I ran on the field. I was running behind the likes of Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JPR – it was incredible. That game changed my life in rugby.”
David never looked out of place that day and after his intervention, fellow back-rower Quinnell took on the move with some nifty hands, with wing Bevan outside him for company.
“I was jogging alongside Derek who had the ball and I could see this black tide coming across thinking I am going to get killed if he passes to me,” recalled Bevan.
“Fair play to Gareth, he saw that moment.”
There have been suggestions Quinnell’s try-scoring pass to the charging Edwards was forward.
While the try might have been disallowed in the modern era by an eagle-eyed television match official, what cannot be denied was the brilliant finish by Edwards, who had called for the pass in Welsh.
“I just think he (Quinnell) was surprised,” said Edwards.
“I was coming up at a rate of knots and as scrum-half I was just thinking I should get up there if the ball goes to ground.
“Derek got the ball and I just shouted to him in Welsh, and luckily he was one of the few guys in that team who understood Welsh.”
Edwards did the rest.
There had been another late call-up in the commentary box. Bill McLaren was supposed to be the man behind the microphone, but pulled out due to being unwell minutes before kick-off. Morgan, who was working for the BBC anyway, was duly sent to the gantry.
The late Wales and British and Irish Lions fly-half did not disappoint.
“Oh, that fellow Edwards. If the greatest writer of the written word would have written that story, no-one would have believed it. That really was something.”
The players knew they had been part of something special. There were some more magical moments like England wing David Duckham, who sadly died earlier this month, throwing an outrageous dummy that fooled even the television cameraman.
Duckham endeared himself so much to the crowd in Cardiff, Welsh fans dubbed him ‘Dai’ Duckham.
Bevan was meant to be playing for Cardiff that day, but was a late inclusion for the injured Gerald Davies, so late in fact that his name did not make the programme.
“You knew the atmosphere was different, I don’t know how, but it was more of a celebration,” said Bevan.
“With internationals you are normally a bit tense, but it felt like a party atmosphere.
“It was a hell of a match to be playing in, you knew that no game was going to be like that for a long time. You could not replicate that if you tried.”
Edwards says the game transcended the sport.
“Experience told us we had not had the preparation they had and they wanted to give us a good tonking for what we had done to them a year or two before,” he said.
“They played some fantastic rugby that day, but as it happened, we also were able to show our ability to produce one of the all-time great matches that still lives in the memory.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself at the way things turned out. Wherever I go in the world, even now, somebody talks about it.
“I went fishing in Russia once and we were invited back to a house in an old town and our host put on the DVD of the game.
“It was one of the remote areas you could go fishing and it took three hours by helicopter. That just gives you an example of its reach.”
Barbarians 23, New Zealand 11
Barbarians: JPR Williams (Wales); David Duckham (England), John Dawes (capt, Wales), Mike Gibson (Ireland), John Bevan (Wales); Phil Bennett (Wales), Gareth Edwards (Wales); Ray McLoughlin (Ireland), John Pullin (England), Sandy Carmichael (Scotland), Willie John McBride (Ireland), Bob Wilkinson (Cambridge University), Tom David (Llanelli), Fergus Slattery (Ireland), Derek Quinnell (Wales).
Tries: Edwards, Slattery, Bevan, JPR Williams Cons: Bennett (3) Pen: Bennett.
New Zealand: Joe Karam; Bryan Williams, Bruce Robertson, Ian Hurst, Grant Batty; Bob Burgess, Sid Going; Graham Whiting, Ron Urlich, Kent Lambert, Peter Whiting, Hamish Macdonald, Alistair Scown, Ian Kirkpatrick (capt), Alex Wyllie.
Tries: Batty (2) Pen: Karam.
Referee: Georges Domercq (France)