The 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand


The 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand stands out as probably the most divisive tour in the history of the game, if not sport. It divided the whole of New Zealand and was the final nail in the Springbok’s participation in international rugby due to the Apartheid policies of the South African Government.

The civil unrest that surrounded this tour had started building up during the 1976 All Black tour of South Africa. The side New Zealand sent over excluded most of their eligible Maori players in order to side-step the political situation in South Africa. The Maori players who did make the trip were labelled as “honourary whites” for the duration of the tour.

The fact that this tour was allowed to proceed led to 25 African nations boycotting the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montreal and eventually the Gleneagles Agreement, whereby Presidents and Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth Nations disapproved of any sporting contact with South Africa.

With this level of world-wide unhappiness surrounding sporting contact with South Africa, it came as a surprise when New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon announced that the planned tour of New Zealand by the Springboks would go ahead. His reasoning was that politics has no place in sport. Little did he realise the massive impact this decision would have on his nation. The level of protest was unimaginable and tore a deep rift in the very fabric of New Zealand society. There were those who supported the tour and others who protested vehemently.

Before the tour had even started the signals were there that this was not going to be an easy tour, as the Australian Government declined permission for the aircraft to land there to refuel, so the Springboks had to travel via Los Angeles and Hawaii. On their arrival and throughout the tour, they met with civil unrest and riots. It has been said that in excess of 150 000 took part in various protests. For the first time in New Zealand’s history, riot police had to use batons on their own public. It was estimated that N$15 million was spent in providing security on the tour.

The Springbok players certainly did not have an easy time of it and two games were cancelled due to the unrest and threats of crushed glass being thrown onto fields to render them unplayable. In Timaru, they spent two cold nights sleeping in a grandstand with a single heater and a pool table to give them some solace. When Nelson Mandela heard that one of the mid-week games had been cancelled due to the protests, he is reported to have said: “It feels like the sun has come out again”. In Auckland, a small airplane was used to drop flour and smoke bombs onto the pitch during the 3rd Test.

For the record, the Test series ended as follows:

1st Test in Christchurch – All Blacks won 14 to 9. There were reportedly as many protesters surrounding the stadium as there were spectators in the stadium.
2nd Test in Wellington – Springboks won 24 to 12. Here some of the protests turned violent and riot police had to be called in.
3rd Test in Auckland – All Blacks won 25 to 22. This Test is most notably known as the flour bomb Test due to the bags of flour being dropped onto the field from altitude.

So, the question has to be asked: “Was proceeding with this tour a good or bad thing for all parties concerned?” It was certainly very uncomfortable for the New Zealand Government who approved of the tour to their country for sporting reasons.

Politically, this was seen as a slap in the face of the drive for Maori self-determination as well as a tacit approval of the Apartheid policies of the South African Government. The New Zealand Government could quite easily have said no thank you and none of the above would have happened and the eyes of international media would not have been directed at these two countries.

The fact that the tour took place though meant that there was massive international media interest in both the tour and the political situation in South Africa. The fallout of this tour was that afterwards, South Africa entered the sporting wilderness with no international sport being played, underpinned by the Gleneagles Agreement. It was somewhat appropriate that South Africa’s return to international rugby was a Test against New Zealand.

Was the ill-advised move to allow the tour to proceed a mistake that had a positive upside of epic proportions that no-one could foresee? I believe so….


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