Reminders of the ‘day the pubs ran dry’ in Llanelli have been creeping out of the woodwork for some time now and will reach a crescendo this week.
They have preserved the scoreboard at Parc Y Scarlets that registered one of the most famous club victories over New Zealand and 9-3 was instantly immortalised by Max Boyce’s emotive poem about the final score.
LISTEN TO THE MAX BOYCE SETTING THE SCENE AT STRADEY PARK
What happened on that dank day in Llanelli on Tuesday, 31 October, 1972, has passed inot the realms of myths and legends – along with the 15 players, six replacements and head coach.
What Carwyn James, the mastermind of the 1971 British & Irish Lions victory in New Zealand, and his inspirational skipper, Delme Thomas, managed to achieve on that day will never be forgotten.
Some of the team have sadly passed on, most notably JJ Williams and Phil Bennett in recent years, but Delme, fullback Roger Davies, flanker Gareth Jenkins and try-scorer Roy Bergiers were paraded on the pitch before the Scarlets played Leinster in the URC last weekend.
They delighted old and new fans alike by talking about that great day per-match and will be centre stage later this week at a special dinner to formally celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most famous day in the history of one of the world’s most famous clubs.
“It has always puzzled us why the other Welsh clubs who beat the All Blacks before us haven’t made more of a fuss about their victories. I’m not sure why everyone remembers what happened the day we won, but it is always a pleasure to recall what happened,” said Gareth Jenkins.
“The game was televised, Max Boyce was making rugby even more popular through his songs, poems and humour and the British newspapers seemed to have discovered rugby as a sport to follow in greater depth.
“The game was played against the backdrop of the Lions having won in New Zealand on their 1971 tour and that played a huge part in the interest taken in the game.
“Everyone wondered if Carwyn James, as our coach, could conjure up some more magic with his club side. He was a man ahead of his time in rugby terms and he masterminded everything.
“There was romance and prestige involved in playing and beating the All Blacks. We were all amateurs in those day – half the team were working in the steel process and others were miners – and Llanelli was very much a working-class town.
“I can still vividly remember the whole day. It was the most physical game I’ve ever played in – we’d never experienced anything like it as younger players.
“The All Blacks have always been formidable, and they were quite formidable that day! It was an experience and a half to have played in such a brutal game and come away with a result.
“It was special, very special, although we made a decision as a group of players that we would only meet every 10 years to celebrate.
“I think this will be the last time we get together. Some of us have already passed on and who knows who will be left to mark the 60th anniversary!”
CLCIK HERE TO WATCH THE BBC DOCUMENTARY ON THE DAY THE PUBS RAN DRY
It is one of those strange quirks of fate that more fuss has been made of Llanelli’s great day in 1972 than of the 1935 victory by Swansea, or the 1953 triumph of Cardiff and the 1963 Newport victory over the All Blacks. Memory fades over time, perhaps, but the special moments remain ingrained and get passed on to new generations of fans.
Ian Kirpatrick’s New Zealand party were still smarting from their 2-1 series defeat on home soil by Carwyn’s magnificent pride of Lions a year earlier. Delme and Derek Quinnell had been part of that squad and were among five players who would graduate from the victorious Llanelli side to face the All Blacks in the Welsh side that met them later in the season.
No fewer than seven of the Scarlets’ side played for Wales that season and three more won Wales B honours. They were a strong outfit, but were they up to beating the New Zealand?
The All Blacks kicked off their tour with a routine 39-12 victory over Western Counties at Kingsholm the previous Saturday, while Llanelli hadn’t played for 10 days. Their dress-rehearsal had been a 21-16 defeat at London Welsh on 21 October.
That month they had also been beaten at Neath and in September their colours were lowered at Cross Keys (18-6) and Hendy (18-16). Four days after their famous win they went to Richmond and lost, 18-9!
But in the biggest game of most of their lives the Llanelli players more than measured up to the All Blacks and changed from local heroes into living legends.
“We had a great side. Think of the names; Derek Quinnell, Bennett, Barry Llewellyn, Gareth Jenkins, Ray Gravell, JJ Williams,” recalled Delme.
“I remember telling them before we went out on the field that of all the honours I’d won in my career, I was willing to give them all away for that one game.”
“It’s always special to play for your club, especially against an international side, and I’d never experienced anything like it in my life down at Stradey that day – the atmosphere that day was incredibly special, and I think that helped the players a hell of a lot.”
If the atmosphere was white hot, the action was equally hot. A second minute penalty from Bennett hit the post, Lindsay Colling’s clearance was charged down by Roy Bergiers and the centre dived on the ball to score.
“I still have visions of that moment. They are in slow motion – the kick hits the upright, I charged down the ball and it goes over the line and just says to me, ‘come and get me’,” recalled Bergiers.
“As I ran back, in disbelief really, I thought to myself that now the battle really starts.”
Bennett converted to make the score 6-0. Estimates of how many fans were at the ground range from 20-26,000, but they all erupted when the try was scored.
It helped the home cause that New Zealand full back Joe Karam missed two kicks before making it third time lucy to gather his team’s only points. He would go on to kick five penalties in the 19-16 win over Wales, eclipsing Bennett’s four for his country a few weeks later.
That made it 6-3 at the break. You could cut the tension with a knife as the All Blacks forwards battled for supremacy in a bruising and often brutal forward battle. Eventually, the Scarlets won another penalty eight minutes from time and up stepped Andy Hill.
His kick from the 10 metre line earned him the most significant of the 207 points he scored that season and ensured the tourists had to score twice to win the game.
When Bennett brought the game to an end with yet another magnificent kick to touch, it seem as though the whole of Llanelli ran onto the pitch. New Zealand had been beaten on Welsh soil for the first time since Newport’s 3-0 triumph in 1963.
“At the end of the game Barry Llewellyn cam up to me and said we should carry off Delme on our shoulder,” recalled Derek Quinnell.
“That was the last thing I wanted to do after playing 80 minutes against the All Blacks. But he got him up there somehow and once I’d had enough I couldn’t drop him down because there were so many people around us.”
The images of Delme being carried off shoulder high by his teammates, arms waving amid a sea of jubilant fans has become one of the iconic images from that great day.
“The boys played exceptionally well and we were slightly lucky that we caught them in the first game in Wales which was the right time. They didn’t know what to expect,” added Delme.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful day. Being carried off Stradey Park after the game was one of the greatest moments in my life.
“I’d played 15 seasons in Llanelli but to have beaten the All Blacks meant everything – because to me they are the rugby nation of the world, particularly in those days.”