I certainly wasn’t at this game. I can’t even say for sure I watched it on television but I have the DVD and that’s good enough for me. Not only is this the greatest rugby union match – 80 minutes of unremitting, exhilarating, rugged brilliance – it also contained the most magnificent passage of play in all of TV-recorded sport: Gareth Edwards’s “greatest try”.
That fourth-minute touchdown for the Barbarians must have been heart-thumpingly beautiful to watch in the flesh at Cardiff Arms Park as the roars from the 51,000 crowd attest. But with the sound on at home and Cliff Morgan commentating, it might, if anything, have been better.
Unless you have lived a monastic existence then you’ll surely have seen (and heard) it, even if only in hazy YouTube footage. It’s a breathtaking, unbroken play that begins with Phil Bennett scrabbling to pick up an awkwardly bouncing ball in front of his posts, from where he executes three of the most exquisite sidesteps to set off a pulsating move that ends with Edwards diving desperately over in the corner at the other end of the field.
Nothing in sport has come close to that thrill. Carlos Alberto’s perfect goal for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup final bears comparison – for its excellence, its building excitement and its wonderful finish – but the try stands alone. I was nine at the time and I’ve seen it countless times since. I never tire of watching it, never lose touch with the excitement.
The miracle of the match, however, was that several other moves almost equalled its brilliance, not least halfway through the first half when only a last-ditch tackle by Alistair Scown stopped John Bevan from going over for the Barbarians after David Duckham – blond English darling of the Welsh spectators – had executed his own sidesteps from the 25-yard line to beyond halfway. He released Tom David, Fergus Slattery and then Willie John McBride before the backline advanced with speed and adventure.
Duckham, adding a dummy to his dazzling routine, again crashed through from his own half shortly afterwards, setting up a superb move that finished with an extended overhead pass by Slattery to John Dawes, who dived over into the same corner – only for it to be disallowed for a forward pass. Then another sensational moment; Bevan this time securing a real try after a Slattery interception and a wonderful, elusive run.
The Baa-Baas were 17-0 up but after the interval New Zealand – who had been fantastic in the first 40 minutes – began the fightback with Grant Batty, Sid Going and the captain, Ian Kirkpatrick, to the fore. Although a friendly, this was no exhibition match: there were high tackles, shoving matches and punches thrown, and the All Blacks were looking to avenge their 1971 home series defeat to the British & Irish Lions, 12 of whom were in the Barbarians side.
Two lovely scores from Batty (that corner again) brought them into contention at 17-11 and so it was not only a momentous spectacle but a tense one too, with the pressure released just a few minutes from time when Duckham made another scintillating 20-yard burst before the ball found its way to a wriggling Mike Gibson and then on to the wing for the bravest of the brave, JPR Williams, to fly into the corner.
The final whistle, the scoreline 23-11, a good old 1970s pitch invasion and a celebration of a festival of brilliance. No retrospective verdicts about the folkloric greatness of this game: everyone – delirious fans in the crowd and weary players on the pitch – knew exactly what they had taken part in.
I had not even been to Wales at that point but in the DVD I feel myself there, a nine-year-old running into the melee and rejoicing in the wonder of it all. That’s good enough for me.