With no games to travel to, Harri Morgan is continuing his journey into Welsh rugby’s past. This time his re-watch train has stopped at Neath in 1989, where the home town club – a feared force throughout the land in those years – are facing the touring New Zealand All Blacks, the world champions.
The tourists took to the field to warm applause, on a windy Wednesday afternoon in October.
There was also a nod to the audience’s appreciation of the visit from the inaugural Rugby World Cup winners.
The partizan home crowd might have been excused for thinking it was their team emerging from the tunnel, for they were dressed all in black, a custom normally reserved for the hosts at The Gnoll.
When the hosts did emerge it was evident that the crowd knew precisely who their heroes were, a choral rendition of “Neef, Neef, Neef” rung out in the key of A major. ‘A’ for Aggression.
If the 12,000 strong crowd recognised that their visitors warranted a level of respect, they also knew that if their boys were to humble the champ, a hostile atmosphere might be as good as an extra man out there in the middle.
With the All Blacks all in black, the hosts sported a white number with a black band across the chest and around the arms.
The jersey was adorned with the Adidas trefoil on the left breast, and what looked to be a silver fern, on the right. Playing for the badge, the home team were not.
It was the champ who came out of the blocks chucking the big punches with their number 14, a primary power broker. Inga Tuigamala’s first carry floored a number of would-be Neath tacklers, before being dragged down in the Neath 22.
The home side would have been relieved when the early attack petered out, but perhaps more so when it became apparent that the hamstring sniper had done a number on ‘Inga the winger’.
The Neath side of the age where renowned for their free-flowing rugby, or so the commentary team, featuring Phil Bennett, stressed in surprise as the challenger opted for the sky as a means of cranking the pressure on their opponent.
The tactic seemed vindicated, when upon gathering an early hoist, New Zealand’s full-back, John Gallagher, was absolutely clattered, the ball squirting backward into his own 22.
Neath piled through in pursuit of possession and the ensuing ruck set the tone for the scrap on the floor.
I’m talking Royal Rumble meets Riverdance. On that occasion, referee Fred Howard pinged Paul Thorburn for going off his feet at the ruck. A flying frog splash might have been a more accurate description of the Welsh full-back’s ruck entrance.
It was Gallagher who opened the scoring – half-back Graeme Bachop making a neat break from a midfield scrum before turning the ball back inside to his full-back.
If the reception committee as he gathered the high ball minutes earlier had been ferocious, on this occasion it was non-existent, allowing a clean run to the line. Frano Botica nudged over the extras.
If Botica thought the early score permitted license for adventure, he got his comeuppance when he looked to launch an attack from the kick off.
Neath flanker, Phil Pugh – with the Ric Flair hair – pounced on him and Howard awards a penalty to the hosts as New Zealand hold on at the base of the ruck as bodies fly in from everywhere.
Thorburn displayed the necessary composure and power to negate the wind and half the deficit.
The flurry of scores continued, as Craig Innes crosses out wide for the second New Zealand try.
Bachop is again the instigator as he darts from a midfield scrum in an almost identical position to that from which the first try was scored.
Again, nine links with 15, and Gallagher feeds Tuigamala’s replacement who puts a step on Thorburn en route to dotting down – or not. Innes slid over the line without grounding the ball, before returning to his feet and heading towards the posts to make for an easier conversion.
Sneaky, but Fred Howard is having none of it. The try is given out wide.
Botica fails with the conversion, but is able to extend the lead to 10 points with a penalty goal, soon after.
For anyone wondering why Grant Fox wasn’t at ‘first-five’ for the All Blacks – he bit his tongue in training, we are told.
The violence is not all delivered by the shoe, or behind the closed doors of the ruck. Sean Fitzpatrick takes a dislike to something, and comes in swinging. Of course, he gets one back for his troubles – and the game just goes on.
Likewise, when Neath prop Jeremy Pugh decides to take the law into his own hands upon spotting a New Zealand indiscretion during a maul, he chucks a right hander to the body of an opponent.
Fred Howard blows up for the penalty – in favour of Neath.
— Ben Jewell (@jewellben) January 13, 2014
It’s 13-3 to the men in black at the break, and the Kiwi broadcaster, Keith Quinn is concerned that it might not be enough with an estimated 15 points in the wind.
His concerns are legitimised as Neath score with their first attack of the second half, right from the kick-off.
No.8 Mark Jones puts his side on the front foot with a forthright carry that the visitors struggle to manage.
This time, Neath choose to keep it in hand, the ball fed to the centres and Allan Bateman, who with his socks around his ankles, glides past his opposite, Walter Little, before feeding his wingman, Alan Edmunds, who crosses in the left corner.
Edmunds is loving life, he believes, and gives the Gnoll crowd a gesticulated gee-up as he jogs down the touch line.
Thorburn adds another block to the growing hope, as he bisects the sticks from way out left. A beauty. 9-13. It’s on.
The momentum, and wind, are with the home team. A huge Thorburn punt provides the territory that ends up with a scrum just five metres from the tourists’ line. Mark Jones picks up, and is met by a black wall who aren’t letting him through a second time.
“The moment” comes for Neath when Thorburn mixes up his kicking game, sending a deft attacking chip into the 22, which he re-gathers before charging forward.
Alan Edmunds, fantastic winger, @NeathRugby, achieved one cap for Wales v Ireland in 1990. He was part of Neath record breaking 88/89 team who hold record for most tries and points in a season. Also scored try for Neath against New Zealand in 1989. pic.twitter.com/cGG87mMEf6
— JONATHAN WOOLDRIDGE (@JONWOOLDRIDGE82) August 15, 2019
He feeds it right to his skipper, Kevin Phillips. The number of opponents between the hooker and the try line is approximately zero, although Phillips will surely be hounded by desperate defenders as soon as he gathers the ball.
He puts it down – chance gone.
Neath remain in the ascendancy and the lead is cut to just a lone point by Thorburn – three points that came after the liner, in his pristine purple RFU tracksuit, decides to interject and advise Mr Howard that he has seen a punch that warrants penalising.
It’s not visible to the untrained eye what differentiates this blow to those of the first half, but the home crowd are happy to roll with it.
Unfortunately, that’s as close as Neath came.
New Zealand cross for two further tries, a second for Gallagher, which was critical to reversing the momentum, and the first of the tour for a young, mulleted, Zinzan Brooke.
Both scores are derived from towering Garryowens delivered from the boot of Botica.
A final score of 26-15, comfortable enough on paper, but for a time out there, on that windy Wednesday back in October of 89, the Welsh All Blacks had their New Zealand namesakes, the world champions, well and truly rattled.
It’s definitely worth a watch and one for the “what might have been” folder.