Campbell Burnes sets the scene for the reprise of one of rugby’s great rivalries, which must now take place in the unlikely setting of the eastern seaboard of Australia.
The All Blacks play the Wallabies more than any other team in world rugby.
They hate to lose to the English more than any other team in world rugby.
They have developed rivalries with eight other teams in world rugby, including the Lions.
But from a historical perspective, in particular, the All Blacks and the Springboks form the ultimate rugby rivalry. They have done so since the early salvoes were fired in 1921. Politics, it is true, has mixed uneasily with sport since those early first encounters. But that has only served to further ramp up the interest.
And now, as we stand on the cusp of the 100th Test match between these two mighty tribes, in the unlikely setting of Townsville, there are several added layers to spice up this eagerly awaited clash of the rugby titans.
For one, the All Blacks have not played the Springboks since Rugby World Cup 2019, a Covid-enforced hiatus of two years. We miss them. They are also RWC holders and the No 1 ranked side in the world, fit to call themselves world champs. They have just emerged victorious from a bitterly contested, bizarre series against the Lions. Their talismanic captain, Siya Kolisi, the first black man to captain the Boks, was man of the series, not long after testing positive for Covid.
Secondly, Ian Foster was recently rubber-stamped as the All Blacks coach through until the next World Cup. There is a school of thought that his charges have yet to be fully tested physically and mentally. There is a school of thought that the Boks will bring that challenge and may well expose a softish underbelly among this All Blacks team, a team full of potential yet one that still has the shadow of RWC 2019 failure hanging over it.
For those who might look into the detail of the professional rugby history stats, it might appear that the Springboks are just another team that suffers at the hands of the all-conquering All Blacks. The latter has dropped just two Tests to the Boks in the last decade, and who can forget the 2017 57-0 blanking in Albany? But dig a little deeper and one sees that, aside from three blowouts, the scores have invariably been tight. The Boks were the last team to topple the All Blacks in New Zealand (2018), and the 2015 RWC semifinal was as close as 20-18.
For those who grew up in the 1980s and recall rugby entering the consciousness post-1981, South Africa and its rugby carried mystique and mystery. There were tales of titanic clashes from tours past, of tough, sinewy, always white, Boks who went by names like Ebbo Bastard, Salty du Rand and Flippie van der Merwe. We rarely saw them on TV so had to read about them in the tour books from the 1960s and ’70s, with Ace Parker and TP McLean the authors, among others.
I knew about Hennie Muller before I read about him, thanks to the gut-busting runs which carried his name that our First XV captain loved to inflict upon us in 1989. Muller was, of course, the Boks No 8 with a big engine who disrupted the 1949 All Blacks backs with his bruising defensive game.
The Boks never lost a series anywhere from 1896 to 1956. They were the game’s unofficial world champions, much to New Zealand’s chagrin. They won four Grand Slams before the All Blacks clinched their first in 1978. They were the toughest team to beat. Now the All Blacks take that honour.
Such was the interest in the looming 100th Test match that the rivalry spawned two books this year, Ron Palenski’s Brutal and Jamie Wall’s The Hundred Years’ War. They follow the likes of Spiro Zavos’ 1997 Winters of Revenge and Graham Hutchins’ 1996 A Score to Settle.
Brutal, which carries a rare photo of a bloodied 1965 All Blacks forward pack against the Boks on its cover, is an apt title. It encapsulates the brutal nature of the rugby, not just in relation to Jaap Bekker kicking ‘Tiny’ White in the spine or Dean Greyling headbutting Richie McCaw, but the invariably relentless physicality of both teams when they face each other.
Australia can hurt you in different ways. France and England, on their day, can trouble the All Blacks. But since the first Test at Carisbrook in 1921, the Boks have consistently been up for it and the All Blacks have needed to match that fire and brimstone, while upping their game at the set-piece and collisions, not to mention in the goalkicking stakes, which cost them badly in 1949 and 1976.
Palenski helps walk us through this century-long history, but his research was not borne of any deep admiration of South African rugby.
“To be frank, I’ve never had a lot of love for South Africa and its rugby, so I hadn’t read about it as much as other teams. In some respects, this was a journey of discovery,” says Palenski.
He uses the fitting expression “supine acquiescence” to characterise the NZRFU’s decisions to not select Maori for the 1928, 1949 and 1960 tours of South Africa, as per the instructions of the South African Rugby Board. It remains a stain on our game and its administration.
“Stan Dean and others argued that by not sending Maori and Pacific Islanders to South Africa, they were looking after them and their interests,” says Palenski.
“You could look at that as naïve. The obvious thing to do was to say to South Africa that we choose our team and if you don’t want that team then we don’t choose to be there.”
But tour they did, morals be damned.
Even as early as 1919, when two players – Ranji Wilson, of Barbadian descent, and Maori ‘Pare’ Tureia – were not selected for the NZ Army team to face South Africa to appease the latter, the ugly spectre of racism was rearing its head. In 1921 there was the infamous match report to South Africa by journalist Mort Blackett, which was leaked, detailing how it was disgraceful that some of the crowd should be cheering the home team, the New Zealand Maori, against members of its own race.
By 1956, New Zealand would have done just about anything to try and beat the Boks, having been blanked 4-0 on the 1949 series in the republic, and having suffered their first (of just five in all) home series defeat to the Boks in 1937, when Danie Craven’s dive-passing wowed the crowds. The 17-6 win at Eden Park (five tries to none!) to decide the series represented one of the All Blacks’ worst defeats at what has become their national stadium.
Palenski was at Carisbrook in 1956 to see the All Blacks edge the Boks 10-6 in a tussle that swung on a Ron Jarden intercept try. But if you thought the 2021 Boks-Lions lacked much imaginative rugby, it was nothing compared to the 1956 series – as dour a struggle, despite its combative undertones, as one could imagine.
“Prior to that, the South Africans and New Zealanders often said they wanted to play attacking rugby and wanted to be better than the dull style of the British, but when it came to the crunch, they played any style as long as they won. That’s what 1956 became. I hate comparing rugby to warfare, but it became a siege mentality. Defence was the main thing,” he says.
“It was exciting because the All Blacks were playing the Springboks, not because the rugby was exciting.”
We’ll never know exactly what happened before kickoff in the Boks match against the New Zealand Maori at Eden Park on that tour, but the latter were smashed 37-0 in a remarkably passive display, one of the lowest points in this team’s proud history.
Maori fullback Muru Walters came out years later and said his team were told to lose the match “for the future of rugby” after the tensions of 1921 and the political nature of the fixture.
Palenski finds that assertion hard to swallow.
“In essence, the word got to the Maori to take it easy. I just cannot believe they were told to throw the game,” he says.
Men like No 8 Albie Pryor and lock ‘Tiny’ Hill were not ones to take a backward step, so their reactions may not have been printable.
As the years went by, there seemed to be a thawing of relations between the All Blacks and Boks. Wilson Whineray had a bit to do with that as captain in the 1960 and 1965 series. The rugby was still fierce but there was a friendlier atmosphere, more mutual respect, which is the case today.
The issue of referees down the years has always been a hot topic. There were, incredibly, no ‘neutral’ match officials until the vexed 1981 series, though South Africans do not recall Clive Norling with fondness for his handling of the dramatic and decisive third Test. The NZRFU turned down the offer of neutral refs in 1976, one of its worst decisions, and there was competition for that in its shared history with South Africa.
“I don’t think the referees were consciously biased, but I did question their competence a lot of the time. That certainly applied in 1976, when the All Blacks probably should have won the last Test with a penalty try (for a blatant obstruction on Bruce Robertson),” says Palenski.
The All Blacks have not always helped themselves with their selections on tours of South Africa. Coach JJ Stewart lost faith with Laurie Mains and Kit Fawcett in 1976 and so entered the Test series with no recognised goalkicker. That was costly.
Amidst all the hand-wringing surrounding the events of the 1981 tour, it’s often overlooked that the Boks did remarkably well to lose just twice in 14 games, given all the disruptions to their preparations, such as having to sleep at venues to outfox protestors.
Funnily enough, the All Blacks didn’t have it easy either on that tour, with protestors making a racket outside Andy Haden’s house to prevent him from sleeping, recounts Palenski.
Other than the ill-fated 1986 Cavaliers tour, after the official 1985 tour was halted due to a high court injunction, there was no rugby contact between New Zealand and South Africa again until 1992. The teams have played almost every year since.
All Blacks fans of a certain age will get misty-eyed when recalling the forwards lying exhausted on the turf at Loftus after expending every last ounce of energy in winning the second Test in 1996 and thus the series for the first time after 68 years of heartache in the republic. Players were now being paid, but it meant the world to them. Seeing Don Clarke in tears in the tunnel afterwards brought home to skipper Sean Fitzpatrick what this rivalry was all about.
This was just a year after the Boks had won the Webb Ellis Cup at the first attempt. They have since won it twice more to be level with the All Blacks on three titles.
The Springboks can hold their hat on 1998 and 2009 as the two years in the pro era when they have had the wood on their rivals. They were a class outfit in 2009, implementing a simple game plan revolving around Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn. But the pickings have been slimmer since then.
The All Blacks, more used to playing in the republic through their Super Rugby involvement, no longer fear the Boks in their backyard. That mystique has evaporated, even if that mutual respect remains at the highest level.
“The players by and large welcome playing against South Africa because they are worthy opponents,” says Palenski. “The players don’t necessarily like going to South Africa, but for 80 minutes it’s the ultimate challenge.”
So to the Rugby Championship reprise of All Blacks-Springboks rivalry. It will come at the end of a stretch of five Tests in five weeks for the All Blacks. They could be without three of their best – Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga and Sam Whitelock. The Boks will be without injured 2019 world player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit, but they can lean on the likes of Willie Le Roux, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk, Duane Vermeulen, captain Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Steven Kitshoff, not to mention reputedly the world’s highest paid player, wing Cheslin Kolbe, a brilliant attacker who was criminally under-utilised against the Lions.
The stage is set. Covid will be forgotten for 80 minutes on September 25 and October 2. There will be no quarter asked or given. This is the hardest rugby there is.
1921 (NZL): 1-1 draw
1928 (RSA): 2-2 draw
1937 (NZL): 2-1 Boks
1949 (RSA): 4-0 Boks
1956 (NZL): 3-1 ABs
1960 (RSA): 2-1 Boks
1965 (NZL): 3-1 ABs
1970 (RSA): 3-1 Boks
1976 (RSA): 3-1 Boks
1981 (NZL): 2-1 ABs
1992 (RSA): 1-0 ABs (one-off)
1994 (NZL): 2-0 ABs
1996 (RSA): 2-1 ABs
Rugby World Cups:
1995: Boks 15-12 ABs (final)
1999: Boks 22-18 ABs (3-4)
2003: ABs 29-9 Boks (QF)
2015: ABs 20-18 Boks (SF)
2019: ABs 23-13 Boks (pool)
Tri Nations/Rugby Champs:
1996: 2-0 ABs
1997: 2-0 ABs
1998: 2-0 Boks
1999: 2-0 ABs
2001: 2-0 ABs
2002: 2-0 ABs
2003: 2-0 ABs
2006: 2-1 ABs
2007: 2-0 ABs
2008: 2-1 ABs
2009: 3-0 Boks
2010: 3-0 ABs
2012: 2-0 ABs
2013: 2-0 ABs
2015: 1-0 ABs
2016: 2-0 ABs
2017: 2-0 ABs
2019: 0-0 (one draw)