NZ Rugby World
THE 1981 SPRINGBOK TOUR WAS TUMULTUOUS FOR NEW ZEALAND AS A COUNTRY AND BEWILDERING FOR A YOUNG LAD WHO LOVED RUGBY
and came from a racially diverse family. Two of my older sisters were vehemently against the tour and marched in the protests as angry teenagers have done throughout history. We were not a divided house, as some were at the time, but I remember rugby being a dirty word at home for a while, even though my older brother and I happily played the game that winter. I also remember one of my mates’ Dad riding his bike to Fowlds Park in Mt Albert, where the protestors massed, chaining it to a fence, marching in the anti-tour protest, then running back to his bike in time to ride home and watch the third and final test on TV. That seems, to me, to sum up how many felt at the time. We were anti racism but keen on our footy. The Springboks were not a team I grew up caring about, their absence from the world scene because of Apartheid not an issue because you don’t really miss what you’ve never known. Australia were the team to beat when I was a lad, with England the team you never wanted to lose to. Yet South Africa has been the backdrop to a large part of my career with regular visits there to cover the Hurricanes, when I was working for the Dominion Post, and the All Blacks with that paper and TV3. Of all the sporting cathedrals I’ve been to, Loftus Versfeld, Newlands, Ellis Park and Soweto Stadium sit comfortably alongside Twickenham, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Dublin’s Croke Park in 2008, Paris’ Stade de France in 2004, and full stadiums at Sydney’s Homebush Stadium in 1999 and 2000 as experiences that will live long in the memory. Sometimes in South Africa just getting to and from the stadium is an experience.
When the All Blacks thrashed South Africa 52-15 at Loftus in Pretoria, the All Blacks’ South African security guard had a chat with the small Kiwi media contingent. “Where are you parked,” he asked the three of us. “Across the bit where the guys have their braais,” I said. “Well don’t talk as you walk to the car because the chaps are a bit upset about the result,” he warned. “If they hear your accents…”. I have no idea if his warning was over the top but we weren’t about to test it. When the All Blacks played in Port Elizabeth we were told to tuck in behind the police escort that took the advance crew of All Blacks management to the ground. “Stay close” one officer said, before getting behind the wheel of his BMW. I was driving some sort of people mover but managed to hang in there during a trip that saw the chatter within the car quickly silenced. When we arrived, Nigel Yalden asked from the back seat if I knew what the top speed was during the trip. “It was 156km/h,” he said. No wonder my hands were sore from gripping the wheel. I was almost arrested in Mandela Square because I did a piece on camera for TV3 without a permit. Who knew you needed one! But it is important to note touring in South Africa was a delight, the people were amazing and the games usually thrilling to report on. There is a frisson to a Springbok test that isn’t there for games against other countries. Perhaps it is because it took so long for the All Blacks to beat them - and even longer to win a series in South Africa. There have been 99 tests between the two countries and the All Blacks 59 percent win rate is the lowest they have. It used to be even closer but the All Blacks have enjoyed more wins in the professional era. But the respect hasn’t diminished. I can vividly remember Victor Matfield’s reply when I asked if the haka should be retained before games as yet another debate swirled over whether it gave the All Blacks an advantage. “I love it,” Matfield said. “It gives me goosebumps every time.” And the need to be at your very best remains too. South Africa has come a long way since Bryan Williams was forced to tour there as an ‘honarary white’ and the Springboks are a vastly different team to when Errol Tobais was the only non-white player in the squad that came to New Zealand in 1981. Now they are captained by a black man, the wonderful Siya Kolisi, whose speech after the Springboks won the World Cup in 2019 captured his nation and was celebrated around the world. He will bring the Springboks to New Zealand for their 100th test against the All Blacks, in Dunedin, the city where the first test was played 100 years ago. A black man leading the Springboks on tour in New Zealand. It is an incredible bookend to a fascinating history shared by these two great rugby foes.