Bryan Williams: The haka, my kick and that try — a Barbarians’ story

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New Zealand great Bryan Williams has spoken to the Barbarians about his part in “rugby’s folklore” — the classic 1973 contest between the teams — following his inauguration into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

The wing was a key contributor to the game in Cardiff — an inspired 23-11 win for the Baa-baas that contained Gareth Edwards’s legendary try — and relived his involvement in the most famous passage of play in the sport’s history.

It was Williams who kicked the ball behind Phil Bennett, whose flurry of sidesteps started the sequence, and it was Williams whose ‘clothes line’ challenge on JPR Williams nearly stopped the move. 

He still has a souvenir from the game hanging in his home and he believes too many Haka rehearsals might have stopped the All Blacks making a strong enough start to the first half of the contest.

New Zealand had beaten Wales (19-16), Scotland (14-9), England (9-0) and drawn 10-10 with Ireland on that tour before arriving in Cardiff for the January 27 contest.

Williams kick

The kick: Bryan Williams, chased by John Pullin, aims for land in 1973

Williams remembers: "On that tour we — for one reason or another — decided we weren’t going to do the Haka. Then we decided before the Barbarians game that we would do the Haka. Nobody had practised it, so we spent all the day before and the morning of the game practising it, which if you witnessed it was abysmal, and we found ourselves 17-0 down at half time. No excuses, but it didn’t help!

Two minutes into a frantic start to the match, Williams was squeezed towards the right-hand touchline when he kicked high down field and into the Barbarians’ 22. It was the kick that started the whole historic sequence.

"I saw open space in behind and coaches will always tell you kick to land not to hand,” he said. "It did kick to land and it started bouncing a bit crazily and anything can happen from there but we didn’t put on a very good kick chase like they do nowadays, we were higgledy piggledy all over the place and then Phil picked it up, sidestepped one, sidestepped two and gave it to JPR. 

"I came in and gave him a coat hanger but that didn’t work! He got the ball away and the it was John Pullin and John Dawes down that sideline and Tom David and Derek Quinnell and then ‘Here comes Gareth Edwards’ from Cliff Morgan.

Bryan Williams tackle

Williams's 'coat hanger' challenge didn't stop JPR Williams getting the ball away>

"I don’t get tired of seeing that and the reason is that it’s part of rugby’s folklore and when I’ve done a bit of public speaking I always play that commentary and afterwards I always say "Ladies and gentlemen, it definitely wouldn’t have been scored without me!" So I’m part of history.”

The history that has unfolded since then has seen Williams playing a major role off the field. He coached in New Zealand, led Samoa’s astonishing impact at the 1999 World Cup, was the NZRU President from 2011-13, and has been coach, President and Patron of the New Zealand Barbarians. The last few years have brought a shower of awards: an MBE, Orders of Merit from Samoa and New Zealand, a Knighthood in New Zealand in 2018.

At his inauguration into the World Rugby Hall of Fame he spoke of one honour that had eluded him. While his sons Paul and Gavin have both appeared for the Barbarians, he never played for the club, although he does possess the jersey worn by David Duckham in that 1973 match.

"I’d have loved to have played for the Baa-baas, particularly with my own history with the New Zealand Barbarians at home, but I do have in a very proud place at home a Barbarians jersey,” he said.

Paul Williams

Williams's son Paul last appeared for the Barbarians in 2015 against Samoa

"I don’t know if it was the done thing back then to swap them but my good mate — I’m not sure if I should name him! — but he had beautiful blond hair and was an English wing three-quarter, he swapped with me. 

"We’ve also got one donated by Craig Innes in the Ponsonby rugby club and what the Barbarians stands for means a great deal for me: protecting the ethos of the game and the volunteer effort, that one for all and all for one. I love that. It’s very important. 

"I enjoyed the game between the Barbarians and New Zealand last year and it’s a beautiful thing when like-minded people come together and express themselves. Coaches Robbie (Deans) and Razor (Scott Robertson) clearly knew how to build the right sort of culture for that week. When you’re a top player you don’t want to let yourselves down.”