New Zealand first played South Africa in a Test on 13 August 1921. Will Evans charts the controversy around the century-long rivalry 

100 Years of All Blacks v Springboks

“Loyalty begets loyalty. So they say. I wonder.” So mused George Nēpia, the nonpareil of All Black full-backs, in his 1963 autobiography I, George Nēpia.

Nēpia was lamenting the New Zealand Rugby Football Union cowing to the South Africa Rugby Board’s directive that no black players be chosen in the All Blacks squad to tour the racially-segregated nation – the third time the NZRFU had ceded to its hosts’ demand. Nēpia was among the first group of Māori rugby stars prohibited from touring South Africa in 1928.

This year marks a century since the Springboks’ maiden tour of New Zealand, launching one of the most revered, dramatic and problematic international rivalries in the sport. It’s also the 40th anniversary of another visit by the South Africans, which was marred by civil unrest and violent clashes.

100 Years of All Blacks v Springboks

1921 – The inaugural meeting

A 16-year-old Nēpia was among the legion of New Zealanders transfixed by the 1921 Springboks’ trailblazing tour, marvelling at their giant forwards and Olympic sprinters on the wings.

Nēpia, allowed out to watch the mysterious visitors’ Napier-hosted matches against Hawke’s Bay-Poverty Bay and New Zealand Māori with his Te Aute College schoolmates, was especially taken with veteran full-back Gerhard Morkel’s masterful kicking – a formative moment.

Nēpia’s recollections of the South Africa-Māori clash are the stuff of folklore: spontaneous hakas among the crowd, which snarled at the Boks throughout, a ferocious contest he described as “primeval slaughter” and controversial refereeing decisions aiding the tourists’ tense 9-8 victory.

But the match is historically remembered for discordant reasons. A Māori player told RH Chester and NAC McMillan, authors of 1990 book The Visitors, that Afrikaner members of the South African team had turned their backs on a poi and singing performance by a group of Māori girls. “We were seething with anger as we waited for the kick-off,” the player recalled.

More acrimoniously, a report by travelling journalist CWE Blackett to South African newspapers contained the following: ‘Most unfortunate match ever played … Bad enough having play team officially designated New Zealand natives but spectacle thousands Europeans frantically cheering on band of coloured men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks who frankly disgusted.’ The cable was leaked by a post office employee to Napier’s Daily Telegraph.

Newspaper columns, along with public condemnation from prominent Māori, such as Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck), reflected New Zealanders’ prevailing outrage. The Springboks distanced themselves from Blackett and the offensive remarks. But an ominous tone had been set for the budding rugby relationship.

Nevertheless, the Boks’ sojourn electrified Nēpia’s rugby ambitions, dreaming of one day taking on this formidable foe himself. The colour of his skin decreed he would never get the chance – despite becoming arguably New Zealand’s first genuine rugby superstar.

1928 – The first tour to SA

Nēpia broke into the dominant Hawke’s Bay provincial team in 1922 and was the only full-back chosen for New Zealand’s 1924-25 tour to Britain, France and Canada. He carved out an everlasting legacy as a rugby legend by playing in every match on the five-month itinerary; the All Blacks won all 32 fixtures and 19-year-old Nēpia became the face of ‘The Invincibles’.

The All Blacks’ next engagement was a historic tour of South Africa in 1928. Nēpia and his Hawke’s Bay team-mate Jimmy Mill were certain selections on merit. The peerless duo – along with several other worthy candidates of Māori ancestry – were ultimately not considered by the NZRFU. The South African government insisted no indigenous players be selected in the touring party.

Though not overly disappointed by his omission, Nēpia became increasingly perturbed by the NZRFU’s willingness to debase its Māori players’ dignity in order to maintain uninterrupted relations with its chief rival for rugby supremacy. The NZRFU reasoned it was protecting Māori players from discrimination.

Meanwhile, the 1937 Springboks’ tour did not include a fixture against a Māori team, considered by Nēpia to be another conciliatory move from the governing body.

1949 – Māori denied again

The All Blacks next toured South Africa in 1949 – the year after the apartheid (meaning ‘apartness’ in Afrikaans) system of institutionalised racial segregation passed into law. Midfield wizard Johnny Smith, the inaugural Tom French Cup winner as Māori Player of the Year that season, and brother Peter, top half-back Vince Bevan and first five-eighth Ben Couch were among those denied their rightful opportunity to represent New Zealand abroad.

Sarah Hirini won the Tom French Memorial Maori Player of the Year award in 2019 (Getty Images)

Any backlash was decidedly muted. “It seemed to be accepted in those days that that’s just the way it was,” renowned rugby journalist and author Bob Howitt recalls. “I remember my dad saying it’s a shame we can’t send Māori players to South Africa.”

Drawn Test series in 1921 and 1928, and comprehensive series losses to South Africa in ’37 and ’49, fed New Zealand rugby players’ and followers’ appetite for the rivalry. In the Springboks, they discovered an adversary mirroring the attributes they prided themselves on: tough, physical, aggressive, fearless, consistent and near-unbeatable at home.

1956 – NZ’s first series win

“(All Blacks back) Ross Brown told me (for the book Rugby Greats) the pre-Test team talks in 1956 were electric, phenomenal,” Howitt says. “It was rammed into them that they had to beat this team that hadn’t lost a Test series.”

The All Blacks toppled the ’56 Springboks 3-1 in one of their greatest triumphs. Over 200,000 fans attended the four Tests. But the restored South Africa-New Zealand Māori clash again left a shameful retrospective stain. Billed as an unofficial fifth Test, the Springboks demolished their highly-rated opponents 37-0 at Eden Park.

In 2010, Muru Walters, the Māori full-back that day, revealed that then-New Zealand Minister of Māori Affairs Ernest Corbett advised the team to lose. “What he said was, ‘You must not win this game or we will never be invited to South Africa again’,” Walters said. “I thought he was joking, but then another official came in and said the same thing, ‘For the future of rugby, don’t beat the South Africans’.”

All Black and New Zealand Māori lock Stan ‘Tiny’ Hill subsequently refuted Walters’s allegation, but it would explain the Māori team’s uncharacteristically timid showing. In his 1963 book, Nēpia proclaimed the players had ‘taken the field brainwashed’ by officials fearing racial conflict.

1970 – Controversial NZ tour

Nēpia lent his energy and profile to a growing ‘No Māori, No Tour’ protest movement ahead of the All Blacks’ trip to South Africa in 1960. The ’65 Springboks were met by protestors on foreign soil for the first time and lost series to Australia and New Zealand. Succumbing to public pressure, the NZRFU cancelled a scheduled 1967 tour after the SARB refused to accept the selection of non-Pakeha (Pakeha is term used to describe white New Zealanders).

Fearing complete exclusion (which befell South Africa’s Olympic athletes from 1964 and its cricketers from 1970), the SARB relented and rubberstamped the visit of a multiracial New Zealand team in 1970 – albeit while applying the condescending ‘honorary whites’ label on Samoan Bryan Williams and Māori trio Sid Going, Henare ‘Buff’ Milner and Blair Furlong.

Brilliant winger ‘Beegee’ Williams was the undisputed star – and the adopted favourite of South Africa’s black rugby fans. He received thousands of letters from South Africa upon his return.

But he was also the unwitting catalyst for an incident that confirmed fears of an unjust and oppressive system. Black fans carried their new hero shoulder-high from the field following a tour match at Kimberley before being attacked by drunken white patrons, at which stage police intervened in heavy-handed fashion.

Amid fierce demonstrations, the All Blacks – including Williams and Going, and Māori Billy Bush, Tane Norton, Bill Osborne and Kent Lambert – returned to South Africa in 1976. Twenty-one African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics later that year due to the IOC’s refusal to ban New Zealand. The All Blacks lost the 1970 and 1976 Test series 3-1, leaving their biggest itch unscratched.

Support for rugby ties between the nations was overwhelming among the rugby-playing fraternity, but far from universal. Manawatu first five-eighth Bob Burgess declined selection for the 1970 All Black trials. He played the first of seven Tests the following year but actively campaigned against the ’81 Springboks tour.

Ken Gray, a 24-Test stalwart, announced his retirement rather than be considered for the 1970 tour, telling Howitt in Rugby Greats: “My decision came, I suppose, from my own readings and my own moral feeling.”

The prop’s absence was viewed as a key factor in the All Blacks’ series loss. Sandy McNichol, a 1972-73 All Black in Britain, ruled himself out of playing against South Africa in ’73 before that tour was canned.

Most notably via his ground-breaking 1973 book Mud In Your Eye, half-back and Rhodes Scholar Chris Laidlaw fiercely opposed ongoing contact after the changes (namely, racial integration in South African rugby) his experiences on the 1970 tour foretold failed to materialise.

Yet revered full-back and Canterbury freezing worker Fergie McCormick’s resolve to tour in 1970 was galvanised by his Māori co-workers’ insistence that he make the trip. Others believed in going to South Africa to observe the situation first-hand, and that the presence of an All Blacks team boasting Māori and Pacific Islanders could help bring about change – a view shared by most who were in and around the squad.

“I had the impression the All Blacks being there had to be good for sport, showing South Africa what a multicultural team could achieve,” Howitt, who penned Williams’s and Going’s biographies and was Rugby News correspondent on both tours, asserts. “‘Beegee’ and ‘Super Sid’ were New Zealanders. I felt it made a big impact over there, though I was very mindful of what apartheid stood for.”

100 Years of All Blacks v Springboks

Billy Bush (right of scrum) in New Zealand training (Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

Māori prop Bush saw accepting a place in the 1976 squad as his only opportunity to see the world – and he deployed his own brand of activism to bait the apartheid faithful.

“We’re doing the haka or going home,” Bush said after coach JJ Stewart informed the team the South Africans did not want them to perform the Māori challenge. “I went out of my way to be deliberately provocative,” Bush told the New Zealand Herald in 2010, inviting black women to functions, defying curfews prohibiting non-whites from being in the city at night, venturing out to black neighbourhoods to meet the locals.

In his Alex Veysey-penned biography, Colin Meads: All Black (1974), the legendary ‘Pinetree’, who toured in 1960 and 1970, highlighted the hypocrisy of ostracising South Africa while ignoring the glaring inequalities between Pakeha and many Māori. Meads also questioned the Government’s duplicity in halting Springbok tours while maintaining trade relations with South Africa. He resented rugby’s role as scapegoat for the countries’ political and ideological differences.

But Meads also romanticised playing against South Africa as the undisputed pinnacle of an international career in the black jersey. That begs the question: if facing the Springboks was not so fundamental to proving the All Blacks’ status as the world’s best, would the NZRFU, the players and the pro-tour public have been so determined to rationalise such a polarising sporting relationship?

1981 – The flour bomb series

Rugby’s powder keg exploded during South Africa’s 1981 tour of New Zealand. Provincial fixtures and an epic Test series – won 2-1 by New Zealand – were played against the backdrop of violent clashes between protesters, pro-tour supporters and police, abandoned matches, barb-wired rugby grounds and flour bombs dropped from planes during a chaotic two months.

Incumbent All Blacks captain Graham Mourie stood down from selection consideration to play against the 1981 Springboks based on three principles: he opposed apartheid, believed the tour was not beneficial for New Zealand or rugby, and figured it would be detrimental from a social and cultural standpoint.

All-time great centre Bruce Robertson was disillusioned by his experiences on the ’76 tour and made himself unavailable to play in the ’81 series on moral grounds.

Wilson Whineray, who skippered the all-white 1960 team to South Africa, and his successor as captain, John Graham, both refused to attend matches.

The Springboks’ historic selection of black player Errol Tobias did little to appease anti-tour factions.

For those who played, however, it remains an unforgettable and generally positive experience despite the furore. “(The 1981 series) was certainly the greatest rugby challenge for me up to that point,” All Blacks No 8 Murray Mexted says. “That series was the hardest series of rugby I played in. They’re bigger and tougher than anyone else, it’s as simple as that.”

1986 – The rebel tour

Undeterred by the upheaval at home, the NZRFU planned a tour of South Africa in 1985. It was aborted following a High Court injunction five days before the All Blacks’ scheduled departure, sparking another controversial chapter in New Zealand’s rugby history.

Twenty-eight of the 30 players chosen in the All Blacks squad agreed to participate in a rebel tour in 1986 branded as the Cavaliers, with Meads as their coach.

“You’ve got to play against the best – that’s why we all wanted to go to South Africa,” Mexted says. “When you play for the All Blacks – a side revered around the world – and there’s this awesome opponent you’re unable to play against, there’s something disappointing in that.”

The NZRFU stood down the rebels (who lost the series against South Africa) for two Tests. More than half never represented the All Blacks again.

Nēpia died in August 1986, aged 81. The SARB elected him life vice-president that year – an extraordinary and unexpected tribute to someone blocked from visiting South Africa during his playing days.

1992 – SA’s sporting return

South Africa was clutched back into the sporting bosom after the dismantling of apartheid in the early-1990s. The All Blacks and Springboks could pursue competition unencumbered. After facing off in just 37 Tests in the first 70 years of rugby union’s greatest rivalry, the professional era has allowed the nations to play 62 times since 1992. They will meet for the 100th time in Dunedin in September.

The debate over whether the All Blacks’ tours during the 1970s contributed to the eventual end of apartheid will never be settled. It can be said with more surety, however, that allowing the Springboks’ 1981 tour to proceed was a shocking error in judgement.

The injustices of yesteryear have left an indelible mark on both countries’ rugby narratives, but steps have been taken to soothe old wounds.

Coinciding with the centenary celebrations of the first official New Zealand Māori team, the South Africa Rugby Union issued an apology to the Māori players who “became innocent victims of the racist ideology of the former government” in 2010. The NZRU issued a similar but more tepid statement.

The Springboks’ first black captain, Siya Kolisi, leading their Rugby World Cup 2019 triumph and All Blacks teams brimming with superstars of Māori and Pacific Islands heritage touring South Africa is progress deserving of acknowledgement as the two nations look back on a tumultuous century.

Meanwhile, seeing the likes of All Blacks half-back TJ Perenara speak out on social issues represents players’ increasing acceptance of, and enthusiasm for, the part they can play in impacting change.

It also highlights the notion of keeping sport and politics separate – a classic fallback argument during the most turbulent years of New Zealand-South Africa rugby relations – as outdated and irresponsible.

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