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1973 or 2000: What was the greatest game of rugby ever?

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19th July, 2021
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Many New Zealand rugby fans will say that the 2000 game between the All Blacks and Australia was the greatest game ever played.

But is that also because the All Blacks won as well? What if Australia had scored in the last seconds for the win?

Yes, it was a magnificent spectacle played in front of a world record attendance of over 100,000 people in Sydney.
With three tries to Tana Umaga, Pita Alatini, Christian Cullen in five minutes the All Blacks jumped out of the gates with a 24-0 lead.

It was an unbelievable start, and we all thought the All Blacks would cruise to victory.

The Wallabies finally got their hands on the ball and after a brilliant break by Larkham, Stirling Mortlock closed the gap.

As Grant Nisbet said, “it was becoming a try fest”. Mortlock crashed over again soon after for his second try. Chris Latham then closed the gap to 24-19. Joe Roff then made it four tries each and a penalty to Mortlock gave the Wallabies an incredible three-point lead.

Watching the game was an emotional roller coaster ride, from elation to despair. Justin Marshall then scored a brilliant solo try to give the lead to the All Blacks again.

Andrew Mehrtens kicked a penalty for a 34-27 lead, but this was cancelled by an unconverted Jeremy Paul try to give the Wallabies a 35-34 lead. We could not believe this was happening after the great start from the All Blacks.

With two and a half minutes left on the clock, Taine Randall popped a basketball pass to Jonah Lomu and to the words of Grant Nisbet, “here we go, can he make it, you betcha, you betcha, Jonah’s in”. Lomu scored, and the All Blacks got home 39-35.

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Rugby World Cup, England v New Zealand, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand heads towards the try line

Jonah Lomu (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

So, for a New Zealand rugby fan can the greatest game ever played be a game in which the All Blacks lost?
In 1973 the All Blacks embarked on a long tour of Britain and Ireland, playing the four home nations, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

They lost three club games, drew with Munster, beat three of the home nations and drew with Ireland. The All Blacks never completed the “Grand Slam” until 1978.

The squad included many illustrious players such as Joe Karam, Bryan Williams, Grant Batty, Bruce Robertson, Sid Going, Ian Kirkpatrick, Andy Haden, Peter Whiting and Kent Lambert. The team also lost to France 13-6 in February 1973.

Prior to the French game the All Blacks played a full-strength British Lions team masquerading as the Barbarians at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales on the 27th January 1973.

Most Barbarian games are played with an assortment of exciting players recruited from around the world, but this was virtually a fifth Test.

Many of the Barbarian players had been tourists on the victorious British Lions team to New Zealand in 1971. What a team the Barbarians were, included were JPR Williams, David Duckham, John Dawes, Mike Gibson, John Bevan, Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards, Willie John McBride, Fergus Slattery, and Derek Quinell.

The All Blacks fielded a full-strength side captained by the incomparable Ian Kirkpatrick, including greats Bryan Williams, Bruce Robertson, Sid Going, Grant Batty and Peter Whiting.

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The game itself? The Barbarians opened the scoring with “that try”, acknowledged as being the greatest try in rugby history. Everyone expected Phil Bennett to kick for touch after fielding Bryan Williams kick, but instead chose to run and we are glad he did!

There are many “what if’s”, what if Alistair Scown had tackled Bennett? or the same with Bryan Williams on JPR Williams? But we would be the poorer for not witnessing such a try.

The inter passing between Dawes and Tom David led to Derek Quinnell sending a pass to, I believe, John Bevan, but it was “intercepted” by Gareth Edwards who scored in the corner despite a desperate tackle by Batty. What a way to start the game!

The magnificent David Duckham then split the All Blacks open with his devastating sidestep, which can only be compared to Bryan Williams on the 1970 tour of South Africa.

The sidestep appears to be a dying art in rugby but it is a thing of beauty. The Duckham break led to great passing between the Lions, oops, Barbarian backs and an Alistair Scown tackle saved a certain try for John Bevan.

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Sid Going then chip kicked over the scrum to an awaiting JPR Williams, who transferred to Duckham, What happens next should be compulsory viewing for any rugby fan on You Tube, Duckham beats Bob Burgess with one sidestep, then possibly threw most audacious dummy of all time to Ian Hurst which even fooled the cameraman.

More inter passing led to an overhead pass to John Bevan who scored, but the pass was ruled forward. David Duckham, along with Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu is in a select group of players who you would have paid admission to see alone, just for the pure pleasure.

New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu

Jonah Lomu (AP Photo/Ross Setford)

Fran Cotton said Duckham, “would have been a megastar in the modern game”. A magnificent player and so exciting to watch.

After Sid Going was harassed by Edwards, Fergus Slattery scored a try close to the line. It was always a great battle between Going and Edwards with Sid usually being on top, but in this game the award must go to Edwards.

Some of Sid’s passes were not too flash, but maybe that was because of his combination with Bob Burgess, he probably never had that problem with his brother Brian!

A fumble by Burgess from a poor pass by Sid led to an intercept by Quinnell and a Dawes pass to John Bevan. Bevan then pushes off Williams, Hurst and Karam scoring a try purely down to his immense strength.

Cliff Morgan describes Bevan’s try like no other commentator. If you do not believe me, have a listen, “so strong, what a try” he enforces with such passion.

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Bevan, after scoring the try, almost arrogantly runs back to position. It was probably a competition between Bevan and JPR Williams as to who had the best sideboards, the All Blacks on this tour sported the moustaches.

One thing I noticed with the 1973 game was the “heaviness” of the ball, it appeared to be quite difficult to kick, especially for sideline conversions.

Joe Karam with his straight on toe kicking style kicked a penalty to make the score 17-3 to the Barbarians.

The All Blacks then scored a great try of their own, a scrappy pass by Sid to Burgess, then onto Hurst, Robertson to Bee Gee Williams who cleaved through the BaaBaa’s backline, “stretching his legs”, then a typical New Zealand set up pass to the winger, Grant Batty.

Batty nonchalantly puts the ball down, then on his way back looks like he is sledging an opposite player. He was fiery that is for sure.

Batty scored a superb second try after a chip kick from Ian Hurst, with the crowd booing him for standing up for himself previously, he picked the ball up and evaded JPR Williams with a deft kick over the top.

Batty was a great competitor, only 5ft 5” and 11 stone, but a definite pocket rocket. He scored a famous intercept try against the British Lions in 1977 but retired soon after with major knee problems.

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David Duckham then made another brilliant break, the ball going to Mike Gibson and Fergus Slattery, before being passed to JPR Williams, who with a wonderful sidestep beat Karam for the try.

There were some superb sidesteppers in the Barbarians team, including Bennett, Duckham and Williams.

It was a match winning try, sealed with a sideline conversion by Phil Bennett for a 23-11 win.

It hurt to lose, but we all knew we had witnessed one of the great games of rugby. In the early 1970’s the Lions and Barbarians teams fielded some of the greatest ever players to play the game. The team itself must go down as one of the best of all time.

I based the greatest game of all time on what it was like as a television spectacle, the All Blacks versus Australia game in 2000 or the memorable match in 1973. Judging the complete package.

The 1973 game was played at Cardiff Arms Park, once one of the great grounds in world rugby, before a crowd of passionate Welsh singers. The singing is inspirational and spine tingling to experience. What a thrill it must have been to be there.

In comparison the All Black haka was a little embarrassing in 1973 compared to the modern-day versions. The crowd still enjoyed it though.

In 2000 the game was played at Stadium Australia in Sydney with many Kiwis in the crowd, and it was wonderful theatre. The All Black haka led by Taine Randall was superior to the one in 1973! The stadium was being used as a rehearsal for the Olympics to follow.

It probably comes down to the Welsh singing at a true rugby ground or to be sitting in a world record crowd, a difficult choice.

Sitting at home, watching the games on TV the enjoyment is often influenced by the commentators. I am afraid Grant Nisbet, the prize must go to Cliff Morgan. Both are of course biased, but Morgan commentates with the utmost passion as witnessed by his call of “that try”.

“This is Gareth Edwards, a dramatic start, what a score!” and the simple calling of the facts with nothing superfluous. Morgan’s call of the Bevan try is spine tingling, “so strong this fellow, what a try!” Have a listen!

Cliff Morgan adds to the atmosphere immeasurably.

Both games ebbed and flowed with great intensity and were highlighted by some brilliant tries. Of course, “that try” was the best, it had everything, great sidestep, passing, catching, the brilliance of Gareth Edwards. Yes indeed, Cliff, “what a score!”

The Barbarians were then unlucky to not score two more fantastic tries if not for the tackle by Scown and a forward pass. But John Bevan’s try made up for it. The strength of the man to power through three tackles and score a superb try in the corner.

Rugby Union ball generic

(Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Then it was the All Blacks turn to score some good tries, both to Grant Batty. He was a little genius. JPR Williams sealed the win with an outrageous sidestep on his way to scoring.

The 2000 game amazingly featured ten tries. I would say that eight of them were good tries, but the tries to Alatini and Marshall were sensational.

After a typical, magnificent run up the sideline by Lomu he in passed to Alatini for the sprint to the line. For an individual try, Justin Marshall’s was right up there with Batty’s second try and John Bevan’s. It is difficult to choose between those.

So, of the two games which is the best? Both were games played in a different world compared to the average Test match. Pulsating is a good word to describe them.

As a spectacle though, I would vote for the 1973 game, if purely for the reason of which game have I gone back to watch the most on You Tube! As a television event it had it all, except the haka and obviously the result. Cliff Morgan reinforces what a magnificent game rugby can be compared to other sports.

It hurts to choose a game we lost in, but it will live on as a favourite memory. Your choice?

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