November 13 1982
The Welsh wanted it more.
The 1982 New Zealand Maori tour to Wales was long awaited and it was anticipated some sparkling rugby would eventuate. Their opponents were six of the strongest Welsh clubs before meeting a shadow Welsh team. Along the way the Maori team beat Cardiff, then Monmouthshire, drew with Maesteg and lost to Swansea and Llanelli before a comfortable 34-6 win over Aberavon immediately before the Welsh match.
The Maoris wanted to win, the Welsh were desperate to win.
That was the telling difference between two dedicated sides who were renewing their onfield rivalry after 56 years.
Eddie Butler, the new Welsh captain, explained how desperately important a victory was to his new-look fifteen. “You have no idea,” he said, “the criticism that was heaped upon the players, coach and selectors after Scotland’s record victory in Cardiff last March. The Welsh take defeats traumatically and a loss to the Maoris would have thrown unreasonable pressure back on to the team.”
In referring to the “team”, Butler was including Wales’ new coach John Bevan, who as a fly-half with the 1977 Lions team had toured New Zealand. Bevan had been entrusted with the onerous duty of putting Welsh rugby back on the rails it had jack-knifed from during the 1981-82 season when losses to England, Ireland and Scotland had left the boys from the valleys in a humiliating bottom placing. After many, many years as the major force in the Five Nations championship Wales’ sudden fall from grace hadn’t gone down at all well with its legion of supporters.
The Maoris contest was to be the start of the revival. Victory was terribly, terribly important to all concerned.
Whether that victory would have been achieved had the Cardiff weather been as sparkling as it had been for the Cardiff match three weeks earlier will never be known. The Maoris wanted a dry ball and a firm field to assist them in continuing with the up-tempo, all-action rugby they’d uncorked at Aberavon. Instead, they copped eighty minutes of rain, a slippery surface and the same degree of lumination you’d strike about 2000ft down a coal mine.
The Welsh, however, exerted pressure for such long periods throughout this contest that it’s hard to believe the final result would have altered much even had summer conditions existed.
Wales achieved its winning break in the seven minutes before halftime, thanks to the masterly play of its tall (6ft 1in) halfback Terry Holmes who created, single-handedly, one of the finest tries seen at the National Stadium and then scored another.
“Holmes, Sweet Holmes,” should have been the Welsh fans’ catch-cry after he’d done a Super Sid on the Maoris.
Wales owed the first try to a feeble tackle by Richard Dunn who had contributed so much to this tour and yet who badly misjudged his tackle on this occasion. It allowed Holmes, who seemed to be doing nothing more than prancing around inches from the touchline, to suddenly dart infield, beat off another tackle and launch his side into a full-scale attack.
Four passes and 65 metres later, in the diagonally opposite corner of the field, right winger Elgan Rees dived across for the try. That took Wales to 10-7. The Maoris could ill afford to concede another try before halftime, but they did following a period of intense pressure from Butler’s Boys.
Tu Wyllie had contributed to this pressure by failing to get a drop-out across the 22-metre line and then Mike Clamp had dropped a high ball near his goalline. Through desperate smothering defensive work the Maoris kept their line intact till only seconds of the spell remained. But them Holmes was able to break the deadlock by diving between Jim Love and Clamp after Butler had detached from a five-metre scrum and flicked him the ball on the blindside.
With a nine-point advantage Wales was never going to be caught, not in the conditions which were deteriorating all the time.
Wales was content to play percentage rugby — and who could blame it. As Butler explained later, “No team could play running rugby in those conditions, but the Maoris had to because they were so many points behind. We were able to play percentage rugby and concentrate on pressuring them.”
Those critical seconds which would have allowed Steven Pokere and Arthur Stone to produce some of the magic which had bewildered Aberavon were taken up steadying the greasy ball. By the time Pokere and Stone were receiving the ball the Welsh centres Robert Ackerman and David Richards were upon them, gunning them down mercilessly.
Notwithstanding all these difficulties the Maoris still managed to piece together two breathtaking tries, one of which Dr Danie Craven, who just happened to be amongst the spectators, rated among the finest he had ever seen at Cardiff Arms Park.
This was Stone’s try in the 77th minute and it combined several of the Maoris’ special qualities. To gain possession of the ball they first had to shove the Welsh scrum off it, something few packs are capable of. Having done that, only a few metres short of the Maoris’ own goalline, the Maoris then bravely launched into a counter-attack. Warren McLean was crudely chopped down with a head-high tackle but eventually the ball was snaffled out to Robert Kururangi who set sail downfield. He then pumped a soaring kick towards the Welsh goalposts and the chase was on. Here Mike Clamp’s pace proved the telling factor and he was first to the ball, toeing it almost to the goalline where Stone snapped it up and dived across.
Having heeded their manager’s plea for the total elimination of rough play following the Swansea fiasco the Maori forwards were most reluctant to deal with lineout obstruction against them, no matter how blatant. And there was a good deal of such obstruction from the Welsh. A couple of decent whacks would probably have fixed it, and allowed Hud Rickit and Jim Love to concentrate on jumping unmolested, but orders is orders. And that was that.
The Welsh re-vamp didn’t finish with the new coach and the new captain. There were several new players, most notably the fullback Mark Wyatt who had prospered at the Maoris’ expense in the Swansea game. On that occasion his five penalty goals headed off the Maoris’ try and three goals. This time Wyatt kicked five more goals, and turned in a sensationally good exhibition of positional play.
Individually he succeeded in frustrating the Maoris. “It didn’t matter where the hell we kicked the ball,” said one exasperated tourist later, “he was always there to catch it and thump it back!”
Wyatt’s only shortcoming appears to be a lack of genuine pace, but to compensate he times his backline entries very well and plainly has an excellent understanding with the Welsh outside backs.
The fly-half Malcolm Dacey was another newcomer to excel, though his dreadful fly-kick, which presented Robert Kururangi with a try, must have drawn a broadside afterwards from his coach.
The Maoris could claim an advantage in the scrums, which was a special achievement against a pack with Graham Price as its anchor. This was thanks to the solid base provided by Scott Crichton and Paul Koteka and through the good pushing of Paul Tuoro.
Sadly, only Frank Shelford earned his keep in the loose, and too often second-phase opportunities were lost because only Shelford arrived in time. Skipper Paul Quinn missed a couple of important blindside tackles and lacked that essential speed in the loose.
Sid Going, who was in Wales as a tour leader, wasn’t too disappointed with the result. He thoroughly enjoyed the rugby and the four tries scored. He was intrigued to have Clive Rowlands, the chairman of the Welsh selectors, comment to him that it was “nice to finally be on the winning side against the black jersey.”
Super Sid spotted a number of basic faults — Warren McLean entering the backline in the wrong place, the players generally missing too many first tackles, Tu Wyllie messing around with short drop-outs when the conditions demanded thumping big kicks.
But probably his strongest criticism was of the Welsh.
“When I first experienced Welsh rugby, back in the 196O’s, they had brilliant attacking backs like Gerald Davies, and they used them. Now they play percentage rugby. It’s criminal the number of good ruck and lineout balls I saw kicked away by inside and midfield backs in Wales. Hopefully Paul Quinn’s Maoris have helped promote the running game in this country which remains as passionate about the game as when I was first here in 1967.”
From “Haka – the Maori Rugby Story” by Winston McCarthy & Bob Howitt. Pub. 1983 by Rugby Press Ltd. P. 50-53.