The cynics still scoff that it was "only an exhibition match"—and maybe New Zealanders would prefer to dismiss it as such, too. But everyone knows the All Blacks don’t play exhibition matches. When your reputation as the greatest team rugby has seen is on the line, every minute of every game is for real.
That’s why the Barbarians’ "wonder score" against the touring All Blacks in 1973 is still widely regarded as the best rugby union try of all time. The Baa-Baas (or rather British Lions in sheep’s clothing) were bent on denting the pride of Ian Kirkpatrick’s mighty New Zealanders, who had come through their tour of the British Isles unbeaten by any of the four home nations.
For all intents and purposes, the Baa-Baas team was the best of the British—a side built on the success of the Lions team, which had won a Test series in New Zealand for the first time less than 18 months earlier. Several members of that victorious touring side were in the Baa-Baas lineup, which featured legendary stars like JPR Williams, David Duckham, Willie-John McBride and the great Welsh halfback pair of Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett.
The All Blacks, as ever, had some dazzling stars whose names are still talked about today. Men like Sid Going, an all-time great scrum-half, powerful wings Grant Batty and Bryan Williams—and mighty skipper Kirkpatrick.
It was Edwards and Bennett who were to start and finish the move that set the pattern for a fantastic afternoon of running rugby—and an unlikely 23-11 Barbarians victory. Bennett’s amazing triple jink after collecting the ball facing his own posts instigated arguably the most memorable moment the game has seen. The ball passed through seven pairs of Lions hands before Edwards stormed down the left touchline to finish off an unforgettable few moments of rugby magic.
Six of the seven Baa-Baas involved in the try were Welsh—Bennett, JPR Williams, John Dawes, Tommy David, Derek Quinnell (father of Scott) and Edwards—and the Cardiff Arms Park crowd went ecstatic in celebration.
The unstoppable Barbarians stormed into a 17-0 lead by halftime amid visions of a record defeat for the tourists. But as everyone knows, All Blacks never know when they are beaten and two Batty tries made the final score a little more acceptable.
Edwards, regarded by many as the greatest scrum-half ever, recalls: "The game is one I will never forget and those of us who played in it will never be allowed to forget.
"It is a match that will live with me forever. People tend only to remember the first four minutes of the game because of the try, but what they forgot is the great deal of good rugby played afterwards, much of which came from the All Blacks.
"After the success of the 1971 Lions tour, which captured the imagination of the whole country, it was an opportunity to bring a lot of that side together again."
Former Wales fly-half Cliff Morgan, whose historic BBC commentary that day has been replayed literally thousands of times, summed it all up thus: "If the greatest writer of the written word had written that story, no one would have believed it. That really was something."
Ironically, the official All Blacks website carries only the New Zealand team for the 1973 Barbarians match although a blank space has been left for the opposition players. If you want to fill in the gaps, the two teams that day were:
Barbarians: JPR Williams; David Duckham, John Dawes, Mike Gibson, John Bevan, Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards; Ray McLoughlin, John Pullin, Sandy Carmichael, Willie-John McBride, RM Wilkinson, Tommy David, Derek Quinnell, Fergus Slattery.
New Zealand: Joe Karam; Bryan Williams, Grant Batty, Bruce Robertson, Ian Hurst, Bob Burgess, Sid Going; Alex Wyllie, Ian Kirkpatrick, Hamish McDonald, Pole Whiting, Alistair Scown, Kent Lambert, Ron Urlich, Graham Whiting.