Why has rugby shortchanged the Barbarian legends of '73?

Chris Hewett
Friday 03 December 2004 01:00

So it has come to this: an end-of-tour match between the Barbarians and the All Blacks, damned to hell and back by every rugby insider who does not stand to make a packet from the venture. The International Board is depressed by it, the administrators of the single most successful club competition in the world - the Heineken Cup - are infuriated by it, the Premiership teams of England are apoplectic about it. In their view, the 55,000 people expected to pitch up at Twickenham tomorrow will be the biggest gathering to witness the cynical betrayal of a great tradition since a wide-eyed Olympic audience were conned by Ben Johnson's sprint to shame in Seoul almost a decade and a half ago.

There will be no cheats at Twickenham, give or take a crafty loose-head prop or two. But there will be no honour, either, even if Graham Henry's free-running New Zealanders draw the occasional collective gasp from a predominantly southern hemisphere crowd with the grandeur of their rugby. Why? Because this game has little to do with the ghosts of celebrations past - Whineray and Lochore, Edwards and Bennett, Meads and Batty, and Dawes and Slattery - and everything to do with the Arthur Daley approach to International sport. First and foremost, this is a nice little earner.

Or rather, a nice big earner. With tickets selling at the best part of £50 a throw, no one loses except the paying public, who have shelled out for the sporting equivalent of souffle - a game substantial enough at first glance, but in reality full of air. And before anyone evokes the memory of the 1973 match between the same combatants - that match, the match, a match to end them all - as a means of justifying this weekend's jamboree, they should remember one or two salient points about what happened at the old Cardiff Arms Park that day.

Far from meaning nothing, the game meant everything. Eighteen months previously, Carwyn James - Saint Carwyn of Stradey, the greatest of all rugby coaches - had guided the British and Irish Lions to victory in New Zealand, by two Tests to one with the last match drawn. As the novelist Alun Richards suggests in his wonderful memoir of the late lamented genius of the Gwendraeth Valley, the tour represented "a high point which... meant that in rugby football terms, his life ever after was an anticlimax". But Richards also describes the Cardiff match, considered by many to be the "fifth Test", as "the ultimate in excitement and skill, the excellence which Carwyn revered in the qualities of both teams, two being required to make the bargain."

James understood the dynamics of the occasion; he realised that here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reaffirm the supremacy of British Isles rugby, so recently established for the first time, in a way that would legitimise his unique sporting philosophy. "Carwyn never saw rugby as a mere game," Richards continues. "His vision of what might be made him the coach of coaches, as if like an artist, he saw the drama ahead already staged, but was waiting for the plot and principal characters to fill it out, all to combine to form an almost theatrical ensemble in which victory played only a part. Victory was important, but not by itself enough, and it was this conception of possibilities which was so fully realised in the kind of rugby football played by his returned Lions."

And so it was that the Baa-Baas, boasting a dozen 1971 tourists among their number and freed from all constraints by a coach who had long been convinced of the potential of rugby without compromise, scaled the very heights. That they had been granted precious little preparation time mattered not a jot, for the familiarity forged in the fires of that Test series in New Zealand was still burning through them. Although they were clad in the black-and-white hoops of the most successful invitation team in the sport, their collective spirit was as red as a Lions shirt.

Gareth Edwards' opening try, conceived and executed to the symphonic accompaniment of Cliff Morgan's television commentary, was, and remains, the most inspiring statement ever made on behalf of the union game. The final try, completed by JPR Williams after handling contributions from damned nearly everyone, was equally mind-blowing in the slower, more exploratory nature of its achievement. The All Blacks were nobody's fools - they fielded Joe Karam, Sid Going, Peter Whiting and Grizz Wyllie, each of them worthy of undying regard - but had to strain every sinew to avoid humiliation. Seventeen-nil down at the break, they recovered to within half a dozen points before succumbing 23-11.

Tomorrow's proceedings do not even begin to stack up in such company, for there is nothing real about what amounts to an exhibition fixture - no solid kernel of meaning around which the money-making edifice has been constructed. In the old days, the Barbarians were important because they were to all intents and purposes a Lions side playing at home, where the great British rugby public could clap eyes on them.

These Baa-Baas do not have a single player from these islands in their party, for the very good reason that these players are engaged in European club business, which has stolen the thunder of all but the most significant international competition. There will be more do-or-die passion in five minutes of Sunday's Heineken Cup meeting between Wasps and Leicester than in the whole of the 80 minutes at Twickenham.

When the turnstiles close and the tills shut down, and the takings are added together, a number of men in expensive suits will leave London with broad smiles on their faces. Thirty-one years ago, events in Cardiff put an everlasting smile on the face of an entire sport. That is the difference between the two fixtures, and it is hard to imagine a greater one.

Barbarians V The All Blacks: The Story So Far

1954: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Cardiff Arms Park): 5-19

1964: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Cardiff Arms Park): 3-36

1967: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Twickenham): 6-11

1973: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Cardiff Arms Park): 23-11

1974: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Twickenham): 13-13

1978: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Twickenham): 16-18

1989: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Twickenham): 10-21

1993: Barbarians v New Zealand

(Cardiff Arms Park): 12-25

'We all know what you can do. Now go and show the world'

John Dawes, the Welsh centre who captained the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973, remembers a magical afternoon

It was the Sunday before the match when I received the call. "Can you play for the Barbarians against the All Blacks on Saturday?" a voice asked. "Oh yeah, and will you be captain as well?"

My acceptance wasn't as simple as you might think. I had retired from international rugby by then - the triumphant Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971, on which I was fortunate enough to be skipper, a glorious highlight of any career - and my club, London Welsh, were playing London Scottish on that day in an important cup match. "I'll get back to you tomorrow," I told them, but my club were kind enough to let me turn out for the Baa-Baas instead. It's impossible to imagine that happening nowadays.

One of the conditions I set was that Carwyn James, the Llanelli coach and the genius who guided us to glory in '71, would be allowed to coach us. The Baa-Baas hierarchy weren't that keen, as it was not in their tradition to have coaches, but we felt that this was perfect opportunity to show the British public the sort of rugby the Lions had played Down Under two years previous. Remember, there hadn't been much television coverage from that tour.

Alas, when the squad met up on Thursday at Penarth RFC, a few miles outside Cardiff, there was no Carwyn to be seen. Nevertheless, we had a runaround, although you could hardly call it a "session". A renewal of acquaintances would be more accurate. The same thing happened on Friday - no Carwyn, a little "training".

We all really wanted the great man involved, however, so on the morning of the match I decided to act. We were staying in the Royal Hotel, a mere stone's throw from Cardiff Arms Park, and I invited Carwyn up to my room at 11am for a coffee. Lo and behold, when he walked in, the whole of the team just happened to be jammed into that small room. It was worth the squeeze as Carwyn gave us an inspirational 20-minute pep-talk that was capped with his call to arms to the then largely unheralded Phil Bennett. "We all know what you can do," he told the young Llanelli outside-half. "Now go out there and show the world." Words have rarely been as prophetic.

Another significant thing happened that morning. Two other Welsh lads, Mervyn Davies, the backrower, and Gerald Davies, the wing, both pulled out with injuries that perhaps they could have played through. Instead, they sat together in the stands and confessed to me later that after 30 minutes of watching the classic unfold one turned to the other and said: "I think we've made a bit of a mistake."

By then the old Arms Park was at its cacophonous best. The game had been built up as the fifth Test - which, to be honest, was not what either the All Blacks or we wanted - but after Ian Kirkpatrick's team had beaten the Scots, English and Welsh, and drawn with Ireland, the Valleys wanted to see the tourists silenced.

It took us four minutes to do just that. It's in the Barbarians tradition to counter-attack but we also knew that the All Blacks were susceptible to a sidestep and when Benno jinked - as only Benno could jink - to throw off those three New Zealanders I sniffed a chance of a try for John Bevan on the wing. Indeed, the final pass - from Derek Quinnell - was not intended for Gareth Edwards but he cheekily grabbed the ball to claim his place in rugby immortality. I've always told Gareth he should have gone under the posts, though.

My part in That Try was what Cliff Morgan on the commentary called a "great dummy" - cheers, Cliff - after receiving a pass from John Pullin. As the only non-Welshman to touch the ball in the move I asked John after- wards what he was thinking at the time. "I was thinking that if I'd been playing for England I would have kicked it," he said. Thank goodness he didn't and thank goodness the referee let the high tackle on JPR Williams go, or else it would have been halted way too soon. Nowadays, Bryan Williams would have been sin-binned, no doubt about it.

Fans, young and old, will always remember the match for That Try, but there were 76 minutes of classic rugby to come in a game that was the best I ever played in. The most remarkable thing about it to me was that I was part of a threequarter line which never dropped the ball all afternoon. No fumbles, no stray passes, no knock-ons. And the All Blacks must be applauded for entering into the joyous nature by playing more expansively than they usually would have. They could have won it, too, had Kirkpatrick, of all people, not dropped the ball over the line with it finely poised at 17-11. But we held firm and finished with another try - from JPR - to wrap it up 23-11.

And so we come to this Saturday and another Barbarians encounter with the All Blacks. It's a real pity that the essence of the Barbarians has gone and that no Europeans will be in the starting line-up at Twickenham. That's professionalism I guess. Regardless, it's very sad. Still, we will forever have the memories of that cold day in January to warm our hearts.

John Dawes was talking to James Corrigan


15 JPR Williams (Wales, 55 caps, full-back)

After retirement from first-class rugby, Williams, now 55, continued his medical career and is an orthopaedic surgeon in Bridgend.

14 David Duckham (England, 38 caps, wing)

Now 58, Duckham was a retail banker when he played rugby but quit to become a builder. He is now an accomplished after-dinner speaker.

13 John Dawes (Wales, 22 caps, centre)

Dawes became a successful Wales coach from 1974 to 1979, winning two Grand Slams, four Championships and four Triple Crowns. Now 64, he is president of London Welsh.

12 Mike Gibson (Ireland, 66 caps, centre)

Having recently turned 62, Gibson is a senior partner of a firm of solicitors based in Belfast. He has guided current Ireland rugby international David Humphries to become a lawyer.

11 John Bevan (Wales, wing)

Bevan switched codes shortly after and spent 13 seasons in rugby league. Now 53, he is a rugby coach and housemaster at Monmouth School.

10 Phil Bennett (Wales, 29 caps, fly-half)

Now 56, Bennett is a popular after-dinner speaker at sporting and corporate events.

9 Gareth Edwards (Wales, 53 caps, scrum-half)

Captained his country 13 times. His try for the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park was one of the best ever. Now 57, he does media work and is on the board at Cardiff RFC.

8 Derek Quinnell (Wales, 23 caps, No 8)

Was the Welsh team manager in the 1987 World Cup. Now 55 he is the owner of Aquatreat, a water treatment plant based in Llanelli.

7 Fergus Slattery (Ireland, 61 caps, flanker)

The 55-year-old is managing director of a property consultancy firm in Dublin called Fergus Slattery and Associates Ltd.

6 Tommy David (Wales, flanker)

Selected for the 1974 British Lions, then defected to rugby league. After finishing his career in the professional code, he became a director of a business in Pontypridd.

5 Bob Wilkinson (England, six caps, lock)

Played for the Barbarians in 1973 while studying at Cambridge University. He featured in the England team that was whitewashed in the Five Nations in 1976. Ran a banana importing firm - Wilkinson's Bananas - now semi-retired.

4 Willie John McBride (Ireland, 63 caps, lock)

Became manager of the British Lions in 1983 and retired as a bank manager in 1994. Now 64, he is living in Northern Ireland. He published his autobiography in June and is a popular after-dinner speaker

3 Sandy Carmichael (Scotland, 50 caps, prop)

Left a plant hire company two and a half years ago and at 60 is now recovering from a double hernia operation with the support of his young family.

2 John Pullin (England, 42 caps, hooker)

He was a farmer during his playing career and continues to be so today. At 63 he runs a sheep farm in south Gloucestershire.

1 Ray McLoughlin (Ireland, 40 caps, prop)

He is now 65 and chief executive of the James Crean poultry and frozen meals group.

Research by Sam Clark, Peter Fiilsoe Jensen & Bhaskar Maji

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