1981 Springbok Tour drove New Zealand to the brink of civil war

They came to play rugby – but the 1981 Springboks’ presence in New Zealand resulted in a torrent of violent protests never previously seen in New Zealand. Neil Reid looks at the Barbed Wire Boks’ unhappy place in sporting history

For Errol Tobias, the 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand should have been a career highlight – a chance to make a global statement for black and coloured South African rugby players.

But just weeks into the tour, the trail-blazing midfielder was ready to pack his bags and fly home.

Then aged 31, Tobias was the only non-white player selected to tour.

Prior to the team’s arriving in New Zealand, his selection had been labelled by both New Zealand critics of the South African’s racist regime and also by white South Africans who backed the apartheid system as a cynical move from South African rugby officials to try and placate anger from the anti-tour protest movement.

And as he was to find out during the tour which divided our nation so violently, members of the team management – including manager Professor Johan Claassen – several team-mates and also some South African media covering the tour were also of the opinion that his selection wasn’t based on his ability.

The issue came to a head when Tobias – who had impressed right from the start of the tour – missed selection for the first test against the All Blacks; being overlooked for midfield rival Willie du Plessis who was struggling with a hamstring injury.

“I seriously considered packing my bags and returning home to [my wife] Sandra who was pregnant with our twins,” Tobias reveals in his autobiography, Pure Gold.

“I phoned my wife and poured out my heart about the demonstrators and violence, and our unfeeling, ineffective team management. Sandra immediately said that if I felt unsafe, I should rather ask to come home.”

Tobias said in his book – which has never been released in New Zealand in hardcopy form – that he told his wife: “In the current situation no Springbok can feel safe”.

After some soul-searching he backtracked on thoughts of quitting the tour from hell.

“I realised it would encourage Professor Claassen in his efforts to keep the Springbok team lily-white,” he said in his book.

After the omission he could understand why touring South African reporters gave his strong form “very little coverage”.

Tobias – who now serves his church as a lay preacher – also decided to refuse to pray with his team-mates, confiding he “didn’t feel up to praying with people who believed only white people were worthy of wearing the green and gold”.

Tobias revealed he first felt a “very negative attitude” towards him before the Springboks even arrived in New Zealand.

Claassen didn’t make eye contact with him when they met for the first time. He added coach Nelie Smith was also “strangely evasive”.

“My sixth sense had never let me down and I immediately had the feeling a very unpleasant time would be ahead of us,” he wrote in Pure Gold.

The only person he confided in was friend, team-mate and Springbok great Rob Louw; another player Claassen didn’t want on tour and who would also be ostracized by some within the squad while in New Zealand for his friendship with Tobias.

Before boarding their flight to New Zealand, the team received impassioned speeches from South African Rugby Board president Danie ‘Doc’ Craven and South African Rugby Football Federation president Cuthbert Loriston.

Craven’s final words was that the Boks of 1981 would lay the “groundwork” for South Africa to host a Rugby World Cup in 1990. Loriston said he hoped the tour would “pave the way” for the Springboks’ readmission to the international rugby fraternity.

Both statements were optimistic – and by the time the Springboks departed New Zealand on September 13, they couldn’t have been further from the truth.

No idea of what awaited them

Speaking to the Herald from his home in Stellenbosch, in South Africa’s Western Cape province, former Springbok star Theuns Stofberg said when he boarded the plane to New Zealand he was totally unaware of what awaited.

“We were just a group of guys who came to New Zealand to play against the best in the world,” he said.

Six years earlier he had made his test debut against the All Blacks on their tour of South Africa. In 1980 he had captained the Boks against the South American Jaguars; an honour he would have again in the first test against the All Blacks at Lancaster Park.

“Playing the All Blacks . . . that is the highlight of any South African, especially on their home field,” Stofberg said.

“I got the opportunity in 1976 to play against the All Blacks. Five years later it was my chance to go to New Zealand and it was going to be the highlight of my playing career.”

Tobias initially thought the same.

He recalled rugby officials said there was no need “to be concerned” about demonstrators disrupting tour matches.

Among items to be given out by the tourists to members of the rugby community and public during their stay were stickers featuring a Springbok leaping through a silver fern with the wording: “A rugby friend is a friend indeed”.

But their unpopularity quickly sunk in during a stop-over in New York on their travels here.

The Boks had to fly via the US after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser refused to allow their plane to land and refuel in Australia.

Waiting for them were protestors with banners telling them to “Go Home”.

And their arrival here proved to be anything but welcoming.

Protestors awaited the Springboks when they finally touched down at Auckland International Airport on July 19, three days out from the tour opener against Poverty Bay.

He described the atmosphere on arrival as “unfriendly”.

“Many of the [demonstrators] . . . wanted to know how I could be on the side of such a despicable bunch of racists . . . ‘Errol, what are you doing with these racists? They don’t belong here’,” Tobias wrote in Pure Gold.

“On the one hand, these words hurt me deeply, but on the other hand, it was the best possible motivation to play even better.”

More concerning was learning days later of pamphlets from a section of the anti-tour movement offered instructions on how to make firebombs, and also urging them to collect broken glass “by the bucketful” to spread over grounds to host the Springboks.

Tobias was one of the stars of the Boks’ first up 24-6 win over Poverty Bay.

But his desire that the “entire New Zealand could experience first-hand that I deserved my position on the team” received a “rude awakening” from management, including Claassen.

“A ‘non-white’ player wasn’t welcome in this Springbok team, not to mention a ‘non-white’ assistant manager with the tact of Abe Williams,” Tobias wrote.

Very early in the tour Williams told media: “As rugby players there’s nothing we can do about apartheid because it’s the law. Maybe we should rather see this tour as the beginning of a new era for South African rugby. In our team we have Errol Tobias who was selected for the team purely on merit and not because he is coloured.

“This your own scout [an un-named All Black scout] can vouch for, who saw him in action in the second test against Ireland and thought he posed a bigger threat for the All Blacks than Danie Gerber’.”

They were the last words Williams spoke at a press conference during the tour.

New Zealand was on the “brink of civil war”

Springbok captain Wynand Claassen fully realised his team were in for a “tough” time after the protests on the day of the Poverty Bay game.

But by the end of what should have been the second match day of the tour – when the scheduled clash against Waikato had been abandoned after a mass pitch invasion and fears a stolen plane would be crashed into Hamilton’s Rugby Park – he had upgraded his description the atmosphere the Boks were operating in as “like a war at times”.

“Protestors tore down a wire fence and stormed the field. While the police were grappling with those on the field, we rushed back to the change-room where we stood on benches to look out the back window to see what was going on,” Claassen recalled in Springbok – The Official Opus.

“I remember seeing a group of protestors overturn one of those big trailers, and then turning and coming towards the change-room.”

The charge towards where the Boks had taken sanctuary was halted by police.

Tobias also remembers protestors “bashing” against the windows of his side’s dressing room.

The fears by senior police that the stolen light plane was going to crash into the ground if the match wasn’t cancelled was also passed onto the Springboks.

“It was now a full-scale war with real blood being shed,” Tobias wrote.

“For me, it was equally shocking and tragic to see how the Kiwis were fighting each other, how friendships and families were ripped apart, for example, where one part of the family was waving placards in the streets, while other family members had to protect the Springboks as part of the police force.”

While the match was cancelled, the tour continued.

Temporary fortifications were put up around match venues, including heavy shipping containers and thousands of metres of strategically laid barbed wire to keep protesters out; the latter saw the team being dubbed the ‘Barbed Wire Boks’.

The police’s new anti-riot group – the Red Squad – followed the Springboks everywhere. And the team was not allowed to travel from their hotels in small groups in team gear without the threat of potential violence.

“It was beyond my comprehension how not even the bloodshed in Hamilton could open the eyes of the team management and make them realise that the world was not going to accept a white Springbok team anymore,” Tobias said.

“It was one of the largest campaigns of civil disobedience in New Zealand’s history and drove the country to the brink of civil war.”

Tobias said as the tour progressed it became a “bizarre, never-ending nightmare”.

Players had mirrors shone in their eyes from protestors who managed to get into match venues.

Noisy protests were also held outside hotels the team stayed in through the early hours of the morning.

The increasing targeting of hotels saw the Springboks being housed in function rooms at both Athletic Park and Eden Park prior to the second and third tests respectively. The team dubbed those new arrangements as the ‘Grandstand Hotel’.

“Don’t you have an air force in New Zealand?”

New Zealand witnessed protest scenes with the intensity and violence never seen previously here during the Springboks’ 56-day stay here.

None were as shocking as those around Eden Park on September 12, 1981; the day of the third test against the All Blacks.

For several hours, protestors wearing a myriad of protective gear, and some using cricket bats, softball bats and fence palings as weapons, clashed violently with police.

Inside the stadium, crazy scenes were also played out as 50,000 rugby fans watched a pulsating test which went on to be dubbed the ‘Flour Bomb Test’.

A light plane piloted by Marx Jones completed numerous low-level passes of Eden Park. Flares, anti-tour pamphlets and flour bombs – one which felled All Black prop Gary Knight – rained down on the playing surface.

After Knight was hit by the flour bomb, Wynand Claassen asked those around him: “Don’t you have an air force in New Zealand?’.”

“We were under enough pressure as it was and with all this going on around us, it was important – but equally tough – to keep the guys focused,” the captain later said.

“I just kept telling them that we should think of the people back home and that we simply must win this test.”

Stofberg said the antics of Jones was the extreme end of protests the Springboks never imagined to experience in New Zealand.

By the time they walked onto Eden Park for the final test the team vowed to use the spite directed towards them as a motivating factor.

“When you see the barbed wire [around the field and stadiums] and the plane, it was more of a motivation to play and do the best in the game.”

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