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Chris Maume: Classic encounters recall the sideburned gods of another age

Supergroups were all the rage in the early Seventies and best of all were the Barbarians, a shifting constellation of oval-ball stars. If a certain lager did supergroups...

I'm also rapidly coming to the conclusion that if the same boozemongers were to have a stab at creating a half-decent sports channel, they might come up with ESPN Classic. It's the equivalent of In Our Time on Radio 4, which teases out historical parallels with the present. A sports nut of my acquaintance says that he doesn't let a day go by without watching at least half an hour of ESPN and this week, with typical proactivity, in advance of the Barbarians v South Africa game in a fortnight they've been showing classic Baa-Baas encounters.

They kicked off on Monday with what's spoken of in hushed tones as the greatest game ever played, when the touring All Blacks were royally entertained and gloriously dispatched at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973. That game, that try: Phil Bennett's outrageous sidesteps, the dramatic offloading through five pairs of hands, Gareth Edwards' thrilling dash for the line.

And that commentary, from Cliff Morgan: "This is great stuff. Phil Bennett covering, chased by Alistair Scown – brilliant, oh that's brilliant! John Williams" – JPR – "Brian Williams, Pullin, John Dawes – great dummy! David, Tom David, the halfway line, brilliant by Quinnell, this is Gareth Edwards – a dramatic start – what a score! Oh, that fellow Edwards!" And as he watched that fellow Edwards go over again on the action replay, he wondered, in awe, "What can touch a man like that?"

Later, he turned to his summariser, Dennis Young, and asked, "Have you ever felt anything as tense as this?" The former All Black considered his words. "To say a game is the greatest one has ever seen is risky," he said, "but I certainly cannot remember, in the many years I've played and watched rugby, seeing a game with such wonderful running and so many good players on the field at one time. This is marvellous."

So it was, but it was odd watching it 34 years on. The players may have bestridden the pitch like sideburned gods, but they looked human. Big lads, for sure – farmers, you'd speculate – but as likely to be discovered in a gym pumping iron as me or my mum. No bull necks, and the forwards not much bigger than the backs. Edwards looked less like an international rugby player than a white-collar worker with love handles (he worked for an engineering firm, as it happens).

When the packs engaged it was with a modest shuffle rather than a titanic crash. And it was good to see them staying on the pitch to do the half-time team-talk standing up. No prayers, no group hug. You half expected them to spark up. And the fans on the pitch at the end, carrying Edwards on their shoulders, were fab, all parkas and Bay City Roller feather cuts. A different era, a different game.