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5 July 2021
dividing a nation
Photo: Courtesy of NZ Rugby Museum

Phil Gifford recalls a time when politics and rugby collided head-on in previously sleepy old New Zealand.

At a quiet party on Auckland’s North Shore about two months before the 1981 Springboks arrived, the host was detailing to a group of us his disgust at anti-tour feeling.
The men around him growled approval. I whimped out, and joined in.
But not enthusiastically enough.
“You don’t really mean it, do you?” said the pro-tour cheerleader.
“No, I actually don’t.”
Within a minute the happy host, who was about half my size and literally twice my age, was challenging me to a fist fight on the lawn outside. Nobody tried to dissuade me when I left instead.
In ’81 it was almost impossible for a New Zealander, especially one crazy on rugby, to hide from the divisions over whether to welcome or not a team from a country where making non-white people second-class citizens was enshrined in their constitution.
I was opposed to the tour. By and large, rugby players held to the mantra that sport and politics shouldn’t be mixed. Graham Mourie, the All Blacks captain, was the most notable exception to the rule.
Last year he explained his stance to me.
“There were three key issues for me. I was against apartheid, and the argument that you should keep politics out of sport didn’t apply, because politics had been introduced to sport by the South African Government when they decided that if you were black you couldn’t play for South Africa.
“Secondly, was it going to be good for New Zealand? No, it wasn’t, because it was very obvious what was going to happen if they did come, and that massive civil disruption did happen.
“Thirdly, was it going to be good for rugby? In my mind it wasn’t going to be good, and we saw, for example, teachers withdraw from coaching rugby. So the tour did considerable damage to the game.
“My internal debate then was, what responsibility do you have when you’re given a leadership role? Leadership to me was that you do what’s right for the people you’re supposed to be leading, so that’s why I didn’t play.”
I covered the tour as a journalist for the Listener magazine. As much as I love rugby, the protests started to overwhelm the games.
Before the Boks’ second match, in Hamilton against Waikato, 5000 protesters gathered in the city centre. A church leader piously asked for peaceful protest, but then a fierce trade union official from the Kawerau pulp and paper mill, Willie Watson, stood at the microphone in a hard hat and steel capped boots, and roared, “F*** that, we’re going to stop this game.”
They did. A large group smashed through a perimeter fence onto the ground, and the consequences would touch all New Zealanders.
Several hundred protesters stood in the middle of the field, behind a minister carrying a large cross. In the stand and on the terraces the rage of rugby fans was white-hot. I stood behind former All Blacks manager Ron Don as he yelled, “Get into the bastards. Charge them, belt them.”
When the cancellation announcement was made, I was under the stand, trying to look out of the players’ tunnel to see what was happening on the field. For a moment Springboks manager Johan Claassen and I were face to face. He shook his head, with a look of absolute contempt, and walked on.
For the next seven weeks the Boks travelled the country like resistance fighters, flitting from town to town undercover, sleeping before games not in hotels, but in heavily guarded squash courts, or in rooms in the grandstands at the grounds they were playing at.
On the night before the last game, the third Test at Eden Park, I spoke at the Eden Rugby Club with Kel Tremain and Colin Meads. Over a beer at the end of the night, Tremain said, “I don’t think there was anybody in New Zealand who was happier to see the Boks arrive here than me. Now I don’t think there’s anybody who’ll be happier to see them go. They buggered up our country, and you know the worst thing? I don’t think they really cared.”

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