Gareth Edwards recalls rugby union's 'greatest try' as it becomes work of art
It is widely acclaimed as rugby union’s greatest try – but Sir Gareth Edwards has recalled how he was “trying to get out of the way” before diving into sporting folklore.
Edwards celebrates his 75th birthday on Tuesday, while next January sees the 50th anniversary of an unforgettable contest between the Barbarians and New Zealand in Cardiff.
The former Wales and British and Irish Lions scrum-half lit up that occasion after finishing off a stunning move started by a side-stepping Phil Bennett deep inside his own 22 and involved seven players.
Edwards was the magnificent seventh, yet the only visual and audio memories of it were provided by television pictures and match commentator Cliff Morgan’s inspired verbal accompaniment.
“Kirkpatrick to Williams. This is great stuff. Phil Bennett covering. Chased by Alistair Scown. Brilliant! Oh, that’s brilliant! John Williams, Bryan Williams. Pullin. John Dawes, great dummy. To David, Tom David, the halfway line! Brilliant by Quinnell! This is Gareth Edwards! A dramatic start! What a score!” was how Morgan famously called it.
Despite exhaustive searches, no photographs of the try exist, and to mark Edwards’ birthday, a painting by Welsh artist Elin Sian Blake was commissioned that captures him touching down.
‘The Greatest Try’ project will include prints of it being sold for charity, with a celebration lunch planned at Celtic Manor Resort next January to remember a game the Barbarians won 23-11.
“Had the game been played at the modern-day Principality Stadium it would have been captured by at least 10 photographers behind the dead-ball line in that part of the ground,” Edwards’ friend Scott Salter said.
“It would have been the rugby picture of the century! But we checked with agencies, picture libraries and noted photographers of the era and those in more recent times. There is simply nothing, and Gareth couldn’t recall ever signing a photo or seeing a painting of his try.”
Edwards’ career achievements are the stuff of legend – 53 consecutive Wales appearances, 10 Tests across three Lions tours, including starting all four on each of the victorious 1971 and 1974 trips to New Zealand and South Africa – but the ’73 Barbarians classic holds particularly affectionate memories.
“I wouldn’t be talking about it without ‘Benny’. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened,” Edwards said, in tribute to his late friend and team-mate Phil Bennett.
“I am conscious of everyone who was involved in it, but of all the players in this part of the world, he was the only player who could have started all that off.
“I remember that I was cursing just minutes earlier because Sid Going (New Zealand scrum-half) hoofed the ball downfield, Bryan Williams (New Zealand wing) hoofed it downfield, JPR Williams hoofed it back. I was running in all directions.
“You are out of breath in the first 10 minutes of any game because your heart-rate isn’t settling down, there is a bit of tension and you are a bit nervous, especially in this match.
“Everyone in this part of the world was going to get the opportunity to see what was, to all intents and purposes, the Lions side that had just won the series in 1971. We had all come back as heroes, and the All Blacks came here and they were miffed.
“When that ball went back to Phil, I thought ‘he will kick it to touch, we will have a lineout, I will have a bit of a sore ankle and a bit of a breather’ but just when I was thinking all of those glorious things, I looked up and thought ‘where the hell is he going now’?
“I was trying to get out of the way, initially. The movement was all coming towards me, I could see John Dawes, I could see JPR, so I thought I would get out of the way and let the move continue, but then as a scrum-half I thought I had better get there.
“I had got going, and John Bevan, our fantastic wing, has always reminded me: ‘Edwards, I would have been the hero if I had caught that ball’. I always reply ‘yes Bev, but you probably wouldn’t have got there’! We always pull each other’s legs on that one.”
Edwards has travelled the world during his rugby life, and it was a moment for the ages that will always be with him.
“Wherever I go in the world, people want to talk about it,” he added.
“In the 1990s, I was fishing in the middle of nowhere in Russia – it was a three-hour helicopter ride from Murmansk.
“I was staying in a village where the mayor, who was a former nuclear submarine commander, took me back to his house, brought out a DVD, shoved it in the telly and up came that try!
“What I loved about it more than anything was the improvisation and the decisions off the ball. There was loads of fabulous play from both teams, some stupendous improvised rugby of playing with the ball in front of you.”
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