Rugby Union: Blacks to the fore but Back on the ball: No frills from tourists as they sign off against Barbarians in a match which leaves Wales worrying over the injured Gibbs

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THE All Blacks will never forget their defeat by England - it will always hurt too much - but they may quickly come to forget their win over the Barbarians because, even though the match was a handsome entertainment, theirs was a forgettable farewell performance.

Not that they seemed to mind much, because, if ever a game had to be won, this was it. All that stuff about the Twickenham defeat being 'a national disaster' ensured that another such disaster was utterly unconscionable. So they, and we who were watching, had to forget 1973 and all that; this was New Zealand rugby without frills. As ever was.

This is not to blame them. We have no right to expect sublime rugby even if the tradition of this anachronistic fixture seems to demand it. We cannot have it both ways, on the one hand wanting to drink deeply of free spirit while on the other imagining these games as having the razor's-edge tension of a Test match.

And that, in the finale analysis, was what Saturday's occasion lacked that its 1973 equivalent, that match, so obviously had. Somehow that Barbarians-New Zealand encounter combined the sense of a Lions Test with other, less fraught or stringent qualities to be seen each Christmas when the Baa-Baas play Leicester. It was unique.

I know, because I was there on the Arms Park's late, lamented North Enclosure, that the 1973 match was no less nerve-racking than a real international because we all imagined we were watching the Lions. In fact we were watching most of the Lions who had won the series in New Zealand 18 months earlier.

You could not possibly be under such a misapprehension on Saturday, if only because there were just four 1993 Lions in the Baa-Baas team (and only two of those, Scott Gibbs and Nick Popplewell, Test players). This certainly did not diminish the game but it unavoidably reduced its sense of occasion.

Even so, the rugby was fascinating, if anything made more so by the contrast of styles between the All Blacks' rather obvious conservatism and the Barbarians' vain attempt to overcome their organisational problems in a blaze of running rugby. Having said that, they went rather nearer to succeeding than the disproportionate score indicates.

It really is asking a lot, if not the impossible, to bring together 15 individuals, however illustrious, on a Thursday afternoon and expect them to succeed or even do well against a touring team who have been together for two months and know each other inside out. However disappointing, it was also scarcely surprising that the Baa- Baas had no try and only Eric Elwood's four penalties to show for all that effort.

Still, it had looked as if it would be a lot worse. If, as Scott Hastings's team did, you concede 17 points to the All Blacks in 17 minutes it is reasonable to assume you might be about to suffer an embarrassing fate, but Hastings pulled his men together and, if the luck of the bounce had gone the Baa-Baas' way, they could even have made up the formidable deficit.

The forwards were still becoming mutually acquainted when Olivier Roumat's loose line-out tap fell obligingly into Craig Dowd's arms for the first New Zealand try. For the second, blanket Barbarians defence meant nothing to Va'aiga Tuigamala once he had easily stood up Tony Stanger en route to his first try on tour.

Poor Stanger. The All Blacks scored 120 points in the three games they played against him and he did not even have time for a tincture after the game before he, Hastings and Rob Wainwright were away for a Scotland squad session. (The Barbarian club had offered to lay on a special flight first thing yesterday.)

Gary Armstrong, who the Scots would now dearly like to remain at scrum-half, went along too, an obvious success among several. Welsh players such as Tony Clement and the Scotts, Gibbs and Quinnell, for example, flourish in this sort of company and Gibbs's serious knee injury is a potentially calamitous setback to Wales's Five Nations chances.

Then, inevitably, there was Neil Back. The 5ft 10in Leicester flanker may not hammer opponents in the tackle quite like a six-and-a-half- footer but his presence first at each and every breakdown and the attacking continuity this provides are assets beyond price. 'You are a super player and I think you might have a grandparent from Limerick or Galway,' Popplewell, standing in as speech-maker for the absent Hastings, told him. 'If you don't, we'll find one.'

Having withstood a 20-minute siege at the start of the second half, the Barbarians did not give way until the All Blacks turned their own deep defence into attack for a late final try, their 42nd in 13 tour matches. The counter-attack having gone one way, then the other and back again through Pene, Forster, Wilson, Jones, Forster again, Ellis, Tuigamala, Bunce, Ellis again, Forster yet again, Ellis yet again, Timu, Larsen, the honour went to Ian Jones, who deserved it as much as anyone.

This was great stuff, a pleasant way to end a visit that had its share of unpleasantnesses and, alas, will not be recalled with a mass outpouring of public affection. It was the end of an interminable season for the New Zealanders - well, sort of. In fact when their flight left Gatwick yesterday, only four All Blacks (Fitzpatrick, Tuigamala, Larsen and Purvis) were on board.

Most of the rest were off to Italy - to play, what else? So much for the theory that supposedly amateur players, especially top-flight internationals, are being asked to play too much rugby, one of the reasons given by the New Zealand coach, Laurie Mains, for inconsistencies on this tour. Too much? Only when it suits.

Barbarians: Penalties Elwood 4. New Zealand: Tries Dowd, Tuigamala, Jones; Conversions Wilson 2; Penalties Wilson 2.

BARBARIANS: A Clement (Swansea); A Stanger (Hawick), S Hastings (Watsonians, capt), S Gibbs (Swansea), N Walker (Cardiff); E Elwood (Lansdowne), G Armstrong (Jed-Forest); N Popplewell (Greystones), T Kingston (Dolphin), E McKenzie (Paris Universite-Club), P Johns (Dungannon), O Roumat (Dax), R Wainwright (Edinburgh Academicals), S Quinnell (Llanelli), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: R Howley (Cardiff) for Armstrong, 62; C Scholtz (Western Province) for Gibbs, 79.

NEW ZEALAND: J Timu; J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), L Stensness, V Tuigamala (Auckland); M Ellis, S Forster (Otago); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown (Auckland), S Gordon (Waikato), I Jones (North Auckland), B Larsen (North Harbour), A Pene (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland). Replacement: M Brewer (Canterbury) for Larsen, 74.

Referee: P Robin (France).

(Photograph omitted)