'It really did feel like fifth Lions Test'

As the Barbarians prepare to play the All Blacks Saturday, memories will inevitably go back to the same fixture in 1973, a match that has been seared into the game’s collective memory.

Those with a vivid recall of events in Cardiff on Jan. 27, 1973 include Bob Wilkinson and David Duckham, among the 15 Barbarians who attained collective rugby immortality for their part in a match which seemed to epitomise the game’s fullest possibilities.

For Duckham, a magnificent centre turned winger from Coventry — then England’s strongest club — it represented a coda to the 1971 British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. Eighteen months on their achievement still resonated, and many players and fans saw the Barbarians match as a de facto fifth Test to follow the four — won 2-1 by the Lions, with one drawn — played in New Zealand.

Cambridge University and Bedford lock Wilkinson’s role was that of the traditional uncapped player included in every Barbarian team, however big the occasion and formidable the opposition — the only such player in the original selection, joined by bustling Pontypridd back row Tom David when Mervyn Davies cried off on the morning of the match.

He was 21 and still at Cambridge, but no big match novice: “I’d had a fantastic grounding in top-class rugby,” he tells ESPN. “Thanks to the Baa-Baas I’d already played with and against the best players in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France. It was an opportunity I don’t think young players get in the same way nowadays.”

He had already played against the tourists for Cambridge. “It was a good game, although we lost 33-3,” he remembers. “I’d had the better of Andy Haden in the lineout, so I think the Baa-Baas felt they were safe picking me.”

Nor had his complete domination of the set piece in the Varsity match in December done any harm.

At the same time, his position felt slightly equivocal. “There was a hint of feeling that it really should have been the full Lions team. I didn’t receive many passes in the practices and was told that I kept on overrunning, but I did wonder,” Wilkinson recalled, while emphasising that the late Gordon Brown, the Test player omitted from the Baa-Baas team, “could not have been nicer about it, and never showed the slightest resentment.”

Duckham, who had played three of the four Tests in New Zealand, recalls that “It really did feel like the fifth Test.” The tour had seen the Lions playing brilliant open rugby against non-Test opposition, but much more conservatively when they came up against the All Blacks. “It could be argued that we had beaten them at their own style of rugby,” Duckham said.

The touring All Blacks, led by flanker Ian Kirkpatrick, had represented a reversion to the grinding nine-man style of old after the brilliance of the 1967 team, and had not made themselves very popular off the field. But, remembers Duckham “to their credit, they decided that they would play us at our style of rugby in the Baa-Baas match.”

That it would be a special occasion was evident as soon as the two teams ran out. Wilkinson remembers that “obviously, as an Englishman, it was something to have the Cardiff crowd on your side.”

Duckham says there was “an extraordinary roar as each side ran out. And you’ve got to remember that this was happening during the Five Nations. I’d been down there with England the week before and, as usual in the seventies, we’d taken a real hammering. This could not have felt more different.”

Wilkinson’s memory is of “a match which went very fast, and I certainly didn’t get the better of Peter Whiting in the lineout!” Very few did at the time, and Duckham recalls that “Bob had a good match.”

Duckham’s own performance features heavily in those much-replayed highlights, accompanied by Cliff Morgan’s mellifluous commentary, his slashing outside breaks perhaps edged only by Phil Bennett’s astonishing side-stepping and Gareth Edwards’ unstoppable charge to the line among the best remembered.

So it is ironic, reflecting both the high standards he set himself and a certain amount of self-deprecating humour, that his main memory is of two defensive errors: “They were schoolboy howlers, and I couldn’t forgive myself for them,” he says.

New Zealand started bringing Bryan Williams, a superb winger, across the field to make the extra man in attack. “It happened twice. The first time I hesitated and got caught in the gap,” Duckham says. “I was furious with myself and Grant Batty, a great winger, scored.

“The second time I stopped Bruce Robertson and pinned his arms in the tackle, but he was so strong that he still struggled free enough to get the pass away. Batty still had plenty to do because he was up against JPR Williams, but he managed to chip JPR and get to the ball first — he was probably the only man on either side fast enough to do that.”

The Lions still won 23-11. “That showed how much better we were at that kind of rugby, and we really did have a fantastic back division, all world class players,” Duckham adds. “If you couldn’t play with them around them, you had no business being there. But those tries still rankle.”

Wilkinson’s main story from the day is also told against himself, though it is less a memory than the loss of it. “It was a long evening of non-stop celebration and I realised early on that I was overdoing it,” he says.

“My teammates also realised this, and the All Blacks began to help me along, with the result that — and this was the only time this ever happened to me — that I completely lost some hours and have no recall of what happened between about 11 that night and three the following morning.”

The following day the team physio asked him ‘do you realise what you did?’ Admitting that he did not, Wilkinson was informed that at some point during the lost hours he had given full rein to his opinion of the England selectors of the time.

He’ll admit to still being unsure whether this was truth or wind-up. But even allowing for some formidable competition for second row places in the early to mid-1970s, with Chris Ralston, Roger Uttley before his move to the back row, a young Bill Beaumont and Nigel Horton all in contention for places, it does help to explain why the rising young star of early 1973 did not win his first cap until England’s 1975 tour of Australia.

He also admits “I may have earned a reputation as a bit of an angry young man,” on one occasion earning a rebuke from Alan Old — no mean critic himself — for complaining about the quality of the food. “Alan said ‘you’re not paying for it, so stop complaining’, to which I replied ‘well somebody is paying for it, and whoever that it is, it is not good enough’.”

As well as feeling that players were not terribly well treated, “and I’m not sure how much that has really changed, however well paid players are nowadays,” he felt that some senior English players had a rather lackadaisical attitude to physical preparation.

Wilkinson was to win six caps in all, each one in partnership with Beaumont, before being dropped for good along with half of his teammates following the hammering in Paris which completed a whitewash in the 1976 Five Nations.

He got rather more fulfilment from playing for the Barbarians. “I’d always say yes if I was asked and I went on four Easter tours of Wales, which I think may be a record. I always enjoyed those matches, and suspect that I was regarded as a better player in Wales than I was in England.”

He continued to play for Bedford, one of England’s leading clubs at the time, and appeared destined for high office. “I was club treasurer while I was still playing and it appeared that I was being groomed to run the club, and maybe for the East Midlands seat on the RFU council,” Wilkinson says.

“But I was getting burnt out. As a former international in your early 30s, you are a bit of a target but no longer always have the means to look after yourself. I had a young family and a business to run, so it all got a bit much.”

One of Wilkinson’s four sons is named Jonny, and appeared a player of some promise at the same time as a better known namesake. “I think he probably had more talent than me, but may not have been committed enough,” he recalls. Now retired, he used to run a fruit ripening business. Anyone who has eaten a banana from either Waitrose or Tesco in the last 20 years or so has probably consumed one of his products.

He and Duckham, who won 36 England caps, both remember that Cardiff afternoon in early 1973 as a career highlight — memory loss and missed tackles notwithstanding — although Duckham believes that another Barbarians outing may have topped it.

“It was a couple of years earlier when Scotland were going on tour to Australia and asked the Baa-Baas to put together a team to play them before they went out,” he says.

“Like 1973 it was a terrific team, with players like Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett. I scored a try from about 40 yards out and Gareth paid me the supreme compliment, saying ‘I don’t think even Gerald [Davies] could have scored that.’ Unfortunately it wasn’t on television, so there’s no record of it!”

The 1973 match was of course televised, leaving indelible images and memories which resonate 44 years on. Will Saturday’s players still be asked about their match in 2061?