From The Vaults

27 January 2023
‘I Was There’ – Barbarians v New Zealand, 1973, by Barney Burnham

Ever since the triumphant 1971 Lions tour of New Zealand, expectation had been building, ahead of the 1972/3 All Blacks tour of Europe. New Zealand had only one thing in mind. Revenge.

Their first defeat came in their second game of the tour, when Carwyn James, legendary Lions coach the previous year, guided his beloved Llanelli to an unforgettable 9-3 win over Ian Kirkpatrick's team. Such were the celebrations that the town's pubs ran out of beer that night.

By the time Kirkpatrick's men arrived in Cardiff, for their final game in Britain and Ireland, they had suffered two more defeats. 16-14 to the North-Western Counties at Workington. This was the first time a touring All Black side had lost to an English counties team. The second such defeat came two weeks later, when Midland Counties (West) entered the history books by beating them 16-8 at Moseley's old Reddings home. That match came just four days after New Zealand prop Keith Murdoch had been sensationally sent home, following an incident a few hours after he had scored the winning try against Wales, in Cardiff.

That 19-16 win against Wales was followed by victories against Scotland (14-9) and England (9-0). The tourists were denied a Grand Slam when a late try earned Ireland a 10-10 draw in Dublin.

The Barbarians match came a week after the draw in Ireland and the build-up to the game made frequent references to the Lions tour, which had seen the Lions claim a 2-1 series win, with the fourth Test drawn. When the Barbarians selected twelve members of the Lions party, this was immediately billed as the unofficial Fifth Test.

I had to be there. I took the train down from London on the Friday evening. While taking on liquid sustenance in a city centre pub, I saw one of the Lions team having a few jars of Liffey water. That might happen before some Barbarians games (the club still has a reputation for mixing business with pleasure!), but certainly not before one of this magnitude - more's the pity.

My friends successfully secured a ticket for me. Not one of their debentures. This one came from a Welsh selector's dentist! After enjoying the unique atmosphere of a Cardiff match day in a pub near the ground, I took my seat - and what a seat it was! Almost on half-way, in one of the front few rows of the old South Stand.

the match

Barely two minutes had been played, when Phil Bennett gathered a kick-ahead, a few metres from his own line, with half of New Zealand closing in on him. Twenty-two seconds later, the grand old stadium erupted as the incomparable Gareth (now Sir Gareth) Edwards dived over for the most watched try in history - a try which will stir the sinews and set the heart pounding for as long as the game is played and as long as there are human beings on this (or any other) planet.

While THAT TRY remains the most celebrated moment from an unforgettable game, JPR Williams's game-clinching try, a few minutes from time, was another score from the gods. It began when John Pullin threw into a lineout on the BaaBaas' left, just outside the New Zealand 25. It ended eighty-four seconds later, when JPR went over in the right corner. By then, the ball had been through twenty-nine pairs of hands - two of them sticking out of black shirts - and every single member of the Barbarians team had touched it.

Cliff Morgan summed up by saying "Those people who have been here today, and those millions who have watched around the world, have been very privileged indeed."

Cliff's summariser that afternoon was the former New Zealand hooker Dennis Young, who played in the days when his country was renowned for its dour, dogged win-at-all-costs approach. Before the first half was over, he was waxing lyrical about the 'zany and frothy' style of rugby associated with the Barbarians and openly speculating that he was probably witnessing the greatest match ever. If a gnarled, grizzly old Kiwi front-rower said that, it must have been something special.

I remember being so elated at the end that I felt I had to telephone as many people as possible, to ask them whether they'd seen it.

Sadly, the Grim Reaper has been hard at work and seven of that Barbarians side are no longer with us. Duckham died on the 9th of January this year, Bennett died last June, Pullin and Bob Wilkinson died within four days of each other, in February 2021 (Wilkinson was the only uncapped player in the team until Mervyn Davies's late withdrawal and replacement by Tom David). Sandy Carmichael's death, in October 2021, was followed by that of fellow prop Ray McLoughlin, twenty-four days later. Skipper John Dawes passed away in April 2021. In addition, original selection Mervyn Davies has been propping up the bar at the great clubhouse in the sky since March 2012. Remarkably (at the time of writing) all fifteen of New Zealand's starting XV are still around. Only scrum-half Lin Colling, who came on for the injured Sid Going, has attended his last reunion.

I was there!

Signing off from his match commentary, Cliff Morgan (who had only replaced the indisposed Bill McLaren a few hours before kick-off), concluded by saying that we had 'just seen some of the greatest players of the decade - indeed, of all time.' He could justifiably have added that we had just seen one of the greatest games of the decade - indeed, of all time. Cliff was spot on. Let nobody try to tell you otherwise. I know, 'cos I was there!


Barbarians: JPR Williams; David Duckham, John Dawes (captain), Mike Gibson, John Bevan; Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards; Ray McLoughlin, John Pullin, Sandy Carmichael, Willie-John McBride, Bob Wilkinson, Tom David, Fergus Slattery, Derek Quinnell

New Zealand: Joe Karam; Bryan Williams, Bruce Robertson, Ian Hurst, Grant Batty; Bob Burgess, Sid Going (replacement - Lin Colling); Graham Whiting, Ron Urlich, Kent Lambert, Hamish McDonald, Peter Whiting, Alistair Scown, Alex Wyllie, Ian Kirkpatrick (captain)


Barbarians - Edwards 1T, Slattery 1T, Bevan 1T, Williams 1T, Bennett 2C 1PG

New Zealand - Batty 2T, Karam 1PG

About the Author - Barney Burnham has been a Tour Guide at Twickenham Stadium since 2005. A Wasps supporter for over thirty years, he was the club's official match reporter for twelve seasons, reporting on around five hundred 1st team, A team and Academy games. He had a regular column in their matchday programme for seven years and co-wrote '150 Years of Wasps'.