Current Newcastle Falcons supporters have become used to watching international sides playing in the city. In addition to the three Rugby World Cup group matches in 2015 and last year’s visit of Italy to St James’ Park, Tonga played the Falcons at Kingston Park whilst Georgia began their 2015 RWC warm-up there against the Falcons.
Whilst Newcastle has worked hard to establish itself as a ‘rugby city’, visits from international teams in the amateur era were few and far between, and it is remarkable therefore that the old Northumberland County Ground in Gosforth hosted two international sides in 1970.
The North East Counties XV played host to the touring Springboks in early January in a match played under tight security to deter anti-apartheid protesters, but on October 24 the ground witnessed one of the biggest shocks in world rugby when the Barbarians played Fiji in front of the BBC Rugby Special cameras.
The Barbarians team comprised 15 full internationals nine of whom would tour New Zealand with the British Lions the following summer.
This was Fiji’s first ever tour to England, and when the party arrived in London in early October dressed in blazers and calf-length skirts their coach announced that their play would be as unorthodox as their dress.
He said: “We keep on running. It suits our style of play not to get too involved in rucking, although of course we place as much emphasis as all rugby teams on possession from set pieces. My players are so devoted to attack that there will be no going back on our methods, even if we are narrowly in front with just a few minutes left.”
The party was hampered by the lack of a recognised goalkicker, and early signs were not auspicious. A convincing victory over Devon and Cornwall (17-3) was followed by a draw against Midland Counties (16-16), victory over NW.Counties and then a defeat (6-14) to a North Eastern Counties XV including Gosforth’s Dave Parker and Roger Uttley.
Pre-match ticket sales went well. With no internet sales in those days, members of the public wishing to buy tickets could obtain them from Stan Seymour’s sports shop on the corner of Market Street and Pilgrim Street. All seats had been sold by October 19, but standing tickets could still be purchased for eight shillings (40p in new money) and four shillings (20p).
Both teams arrived in Newcastle on the evening of the 22nd. Whilst the Fijians trained on the Friday morning, the Baa Baas played golf, although they did hold their sole training session in the afternoon at Northern.
The match itself, played in front of a packed house, exceeded all expectations.
After a first half which did little to set the pulse racing saw the teams turn around at 3-3, the tourists ran amok creating carnage almost every time they had the ball. They played fifteen-man rugby in its truest sense, running in six second-half tries all from open play.
Some of the most impressive running came from the tight forwards displaying impressive athleticism and handling skill which drew comparisons with the famous Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. The space they created enabled the majority of the tries to be scored sufficiently close to the posts to ensure that four of the tries were converted, leaving the final score at 29-9.
To put that in perspective, under today’s points scoring that would equate to 43-13 in the humbling of one of the strongest teams ever assembled in the UK.
Pot-match praise for the tourists was suitably effusive. The Journal’s rugby correspondent, John Pargeter, wrote: “It is doubtful if any tourists to this country have ever captured the imagination of the rugby-playing fraternity – let alone the general public – as have the Fijians. Their carefree tactics, sometimes described as fanciful, exuberant and more like the Harlem Globetrotters, are in complete contrast to the dedicated drilling of British sides which is making them more and more stereotyped.”
The Northumberland President Telford Moralee said: “I don’t think we will ever see anything like it again. It was absolutely wonderful rugby, and short of completely closing up the whole game, I don’t know what the counter is. Their attacks came from all angles. Their front five in the pack were marvellous, and their display can do nothing but good for the game.”
Other commentators made a plea for the domestic sides to adopt a similar approach to playing the game. In a follow-up piece to his match report, Pargeter asked: “Is this the trend England should take and not to pattern play on the all-powerful All Blacks, with everything hinging on a pack smothering the finer points of the game which, after all, was started…..by William Webb-Ellis who RAN with the ball in his hands? Kicking has killed rugby as a spectator sport…”
Sadly, it was not to be. The tourists could not replicate this performance and lost several of their remaining tour matches as opponents realised that the ‘counter’ to this style of play was simply to deny the Fijians possession. The reality is that this type of performance is only possibility when playing against opponents who are intent on playing in the same way, as were the Baa Baas.
The teams that day were as follows:
Barbarians: JPR Williams (Wales); ATA Duggan (Ireland); JS Spencer (England); DJ Duckham (England); P.Bennett (Wales); GO Edwards (Wales); PJ O’Callaghan (Ireland); FA Laidlaw (Scotland); DB Llewellyn (Wales); WD Thomas (Wales); A.M.Davies (England); R.J. Arneil (Scotland); JF Slattery (Ireland); R.Quinnell (Wales).
Fiji: J.Visei; R.Latilevu; S.Nasave; K.Latilevu; P.Tikoisuva; K.Nalatu; G.Barley; I. Batibasaga; J.Sovan; J.Nacabaluva; A.Racike; J.Quoro; N.Ravovou; S.Toga; I.Tuisese.
The referee was Mr TFE Grierson from the Scottish Rugby Football Union.
The Fijian winger, Pio Bosco Tikoisuva, went on the play in 19 tests for Fiji. Following the 1970 tour he was recruited by Harlequins and went to play for the Barbarians in matches against Leicester and France. In 2001 he became the first professional CEO of the Fijian Rugby Union and in 2008 he was appointed High Commissioner for Fiji in London.
The Fijian connection with Newcastle has of course been re-established in recent years with a number of Fijian internationals, most notably Vereniki Goneva, Josh Matavesi, Tevita ‘Tex’ Cavubati and Nemani Nagusa, all plying their trade at Kingston Park.
JPR Williams, one of the most famous players to wear the red of Wales, was no stranger to the North East, having played in the Northumberland Tennis Championships in each of the previous two years.
As for the old County Ground in Gosforth, it is of course no more. Having begun life as the Gosforth Cycling Grounds and at one stage operating as the County Athletics Ground, it hosted greyhound racing between 1932 and 1987, one of three licensed Dog Tracks in the city.
It is not entirely clear when the Northumberland Rugby Union acquired the site. The pitch and dog track were surrounded by covered grandstands offering a mix of seated and standing accommodation. A brick pavilion was built to incorporate dressing rooms and offices, and latterly a bar. Northern and Gosforth played their home fixtures on the ground until 1937 and 1955 respectively, but thereafter its rugby use was limited to a handful of representative games and county cup finals.
Pitch maintenance was pretty basic, with the grass grown long and frost protection consisting of a generous covering of straw.
With the loss of income from the dog racing the decision was made to sell the ground in 1988, and the stadium was demolished to make way for the ASDA supermarket that stands on the site today. The sale proceeds of approximately £2.5m were eventually invested in a series of trusts for the benefit of rugby in the county, with the income from the invested capital being used to complement the central funding available to clubs and constituent bodies from other sources.