Gareth Edwards’ try for the Barbarians against New Zealand in 1973 still, 40 years later, tops the charts of the greatest tries of all time. Search under that phrase on YouTube, and this is what you’ll find: a grainy piece of footage accompanied by Cliff Morgan’s ever-rising commentary, the camera rushing to keep up with a fragile lifeline of passes, sidesteps, fingertip catches and bursts of acceleration.
The move begins deep in the Barbarians’ 22 with the diminutive Phil Bennett darting to elude four New Zealand players. As he’s tackled by a fifth, Bennett makes the first of six passes that takes the ball up the pitch in a move that finishes with Edwards’ triumphant lunge across the New Zealand line, punctuated by Morgan’s ecstatic eulogy, “What a try! Oh, that fellow Edwards!”
As the two teams took up their positions in the wake of that try, Morgan summed up what the rugby-watching world had just witnessed. “If the greatest writer of the written word had written that story, no one would have believed it.”
Morgan’s statement goes to the heart of why we watch rugby: for the surprise of the unexpected, for the beauty of the moment-born pattern that breaks the pattern, for the script written not by an author, but by the second. Rugby is, at its best, pure drama, the modern echo of the Roman colosseum and the Greek arena. Just as an audience at a play share the contours of their emotions, riding the rise and fall of anticipation, expectation and surprise, so the thousands at a rugby match share the exact same emotional rhythm of a game. The crucial difference is that in the theatre the ending is already decided. It is on the page, in the minds of the actors and, possibly, in the minds of the audience too. Hence the “purity” of rugby’s drama, an ever-changing story that tugs at our most atavistic narrative desire for “what happens next?”
Even from the other side of the pitch, from the perspective of the players, coaches and officials, rugby shares a huge amount of atmospheric territory with theatre. To stand in the tunnel with the players waiting to enter the stadium’s bowl is to stand in the wings of a stage. The flurry of activity before a match – the preparing of the ground and changing rooms, the organising of the medical and strapping stations – all carries strong tones of the backstage dramatic world.
Over the past 15 years rugby has made the transition from an amateur to a professional game. Rules have changed, training has become more sophisticated and improved, defensive strategies mean that sustained, breathtaking chains of fragile passes like that which led to Edwards’ try are almost extinct.
But there are new forms of drama to be found in the modern rugby match. England’s recent defeat of New Zealand was a perfect example of how a broader narrative of minnows and giants, Davids and Goliaths, can capture the rugby imagination. And, of course, with diminishment comes amplification.
As line-breaks in a game become increasingly rare, so they become increasingly exciting. The tension and drama are further heightened, the pattern that breaks the pattern ever more of a gift. As when Scott Williams scored for Wales against England last year. England were attacking, looking strong and threatening. Wales were on the back foot. Then, with a single rip of the ball from the arms of Courtney Lawes, a kick, a blissful bounce and another triumphant dive across the line, in seven seconds everything had changed. The script of the match had switch-backed as suddenly as a Phil Bennett sidestep and the game, once again, was on.
Poet Owen Sheers followed the Wales rugby team in 2012 as the WRU's official artist in residence.
Archive on 4: Rugby's Greatest Try is on Saturday at 8:00pm on Radio 4