July 25 1981 – A Day Like No Other.

Because of the strong feelings about South Africa’s apartheid policy the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand was always going to be controversial. And matters came to a head at the second tour match, against Waikato in Hamilton.

Match ticket to the Waikato vs South Africa match. They contained a misprint, they year was meant to read 1981

Hamilton, July 25, v Waikato

Terry Barron, the South African Press Association man who has seen much of the good and bad in southern Africa over the last 15 years, looked sadly into his evening beer and said: “Today, New Zealand turned 21.”

It was a penetrating statement, focussing all the hideous events of the past five hours to that one point. This soft little democracy of ours would no longer be quite the same. That afternoon a Rugby ground had been raped, and the match between the Springboks and Waikato cancelled. A disaster of sport in a nation that has, with a certain teen-age naivety, regarded sport as one of the purer expressions of nationalism. Worse, in those five grim hours, and afterward, New Zealander had attacked New Zealander in insensate reprisal.

By invading the park the demonstrators had turned the protest movement from an idealism that had the support of so many people of so many different persuasions to a violence that was the tool of the extremist. That afternoon, in some unholy duet, the cause of sport and the cause of idealism were together dragged into bitter adulthood.

Hamilton that morning had an eerie, unreal air. Of all the cities in New Zealand Hamilton, on a big-match day, has a special Rugby flavour. The country-folk pour in, the big-city Aucklanders mingle with them, the talk is all of the game. This time Victoria St was not the golden mile, a strangely drab place, almost deserted. The usual Mooloo parade had been cancelled, lest it provoke friction between pro- and anti-tour.

So as soon as decently possible I went to the ground, had my bag searched and took a seat in the little pressbox on the bank. The Springboks had beaten me by two hours, their paint-splattered bus arriving at 10. 15. Some of them had jogged between the trucks on the edge of the No 2 field, and then all had been quartered in a room with mattresses and a television set for company.

From my high vantage point I could see all the fence-line to the left, some to the right and at the rear. It was an uncanny feeling, detached, almost as remote as the helicopter which hovered overhead. I could see some of the bulwark formed by the trucks behind the main grandstand and I wondered what use they would be, for the ends of the ground were blocked only by the fence. Even as the B teams of Counties and Waikato played a lively curtainraiser and a soft sun broke through the cloud it was impossible to concentrate. Every minute the eyes flicked to the roadway at the left, to Seddon Road at the far right. From where would the march come, and where would it end? The ground filled steadily, the open seating in front of me a babble of exciting, expectant noise.

Rumours, rumours. The first that the Waikato team’s bus had been held up and that they would not arrive in time, and this when Pat Bennett and his men were in clear view at the front of the stand, testing the ground, sniffing the air, noting the sun that could spoil the sight late in the game.

Another rumour, a stolen plane was somewhere in the air. And still the nervous watch for the marchers.

They appeared, far to the left, as the curtainraiser was five minutes short of its end and the crowd in front began to settle down for the big game. The march moved forward, with its outriders of cameramen, to a spindly barricade by the far corner of the No 3 field. They seemed to hesitate, as if the No 3 ground fence was their target, and then they curled round the barricade and straightened along the road at the northern end of the ground. The crowd hushed, the curtainraiser played on, and then finished as the march formed along the road, at its head a banner proclaiming “Black Unit.” The head of the march halted outside the fence, more or less in line with the goal-posts.

For 15 or 20 seconds an uncanny silence fell over the ground, the front of the march obscured by the spectators on the mound behind the goal- posts.

Then, with devilish speed, they came. Two flying wedges of helmeted protesters, about 20 yards apart, slashed through the crowd on the shallow bank and leapt the fence onto the field. Between them the gap opened, the demonstrators poured down, demolished the boundary fence and spewed on to the field. The thin line of police caught but a few. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred at least thrashed through the gap and onto the field, some on the fringes scattering about throwing their fists aloft in triumph, and then massing together with the main body in between the 22
and halfway line. They sat for a while, then stood, those on the outside with arms linked.

Below me the crowd were in a torment. “Off, off, off,” they snarled. A few of the more fervent ones jumped the fence, but were taken by the thin line of police round the edge of the field. Then cheers as a line of police, with riot helmets, jog-trotted out from the grandstand and formed a line along halfway. Round the fringe of the demonstrators Tom Newnham, veteran of so many protests, moved, shaking hands, thrusting his arms aloft in triumph. An orange flare, then another, were hurled from the mass of protesters, the smoke curling about as if on some lower level of Dante’s Inferno. Another squad of police, their helmets glinting coldly in the sunlight, came out from the grandstand, broke into sections, and one line moved to the goal-line, between the shattered fence and the massed protesters. A second squad, then a third, followed suit, three lines of police to the left of the mass, the fourth still along halfway. “Off, off, off,” screamed the crowd, and more roars as the front of the three squads moved slowly toward the demonstrators, the second squad following, then the line at halfway moved and joined the others at the left of the protesters.

A roar as the front line of police moved up, and then groans as they stopped 10 metres short of the mass. Newnham broke clear, was brought down by two plain-clothes police, and delivered to two uniformed policemen, their traditional Bobby’s hats a strange contrast to the visored helmets of the other police, and the many-coloured crash-helmets in the solid mass of protesters.

The police leader barked a message through a loud-hailer, and the front line moved up, three or four feet from the demonstrators. They moved again, to the edge of the mass, pushing with their hands The protesters did not yield. Another line of police moved up, and pushed. The crush of people swayed, but did not move. The second line dropped back, and away from the crush moved a Maori in a black cassock, holding aloft a wooden cross. A police officer barked at the protesters through his loud- hailer, perhaps offering safe conduct for those who wanted to leave. A smattering of protesters broke away and left the ground.

The minutes dragged by, 20 minutes past the match time, and the police heads, Walton and Davies among them, conferred by the grandstand.

Impasse, and time to examine some of the demonstrators. To the right the slim red-headed man arrested at Gisborne, to the left a stocky Maori woman shouting through a loud-hailer, to the right again a man in duffle-coat, cheese-cutter hat, goatee beard, apparently one of the leaders. To the left again, a middle-aged woman, pale face, large glasses, half-length coat, cardigan, gloves, hand-bag, sensible shoes, so much a contrast to the knockabout gear of the others. She might have been a favourite aunt, a gentle kindergarten teacher. Perhaps she was. And she held in front of her a small white cloth sign carrying the black letters “Shame.”

The police talked, Rugby officials milled about, the Springboks reserves and officials sat stolidly in the grandstand wondering, perhaps, whether this would be the end of their tour.
About now, as we learned later, another band of protesters broke through the fence onto the No 2 ground behind the grandstand, but were turned back at the line of trucks.

2.25: The crowd on the bank began to throw stones at the demonstrators, and a young woman sank to the ground, holding her head.

2.30: “Please keep your seats,” said Frank O’Connor, the Waikato Rugby Union chairman, over the public-address system. “We hope the game will go ahead in a short time.” Cheers from the crowd. “The people who can handle the situation are out there now doing exactly that.” Jeers from the crowd.

2.32: The photographers on the ground are told to leave, bustled along by roars from the crowd.

2.34: “We want Rugby, we want Rugby,” from the bank.

2.35: A squad of police broke away from centre-field and formed a line facing the crowd on the bank.

2,45: The police announced that they will start making arrests if the protesters do not move. One man moved away.

2.48: The police formed a semi-circle round the left-hand end of the demonstrators, and began taking demonstrators away, one at a time. Some struggled, some walked, some had to be dragged the 80 or 90 metres to the gate at the south-western corner of the ground. The Maori woman in yellow was taken away, carried by five policemen.

2.52: A police van came onto the field, stopped 50 metres from the demonstrators, and police brought out boxes of forms to use for the arrests. By now some of the crowd noticed the pressbox behind them . . . “why don’t you write the truth for a change,” shouted one spectator. Then another police van, as the queue formed at the first one.

3.10: The fateful words from O’Connor over the public address system:
“The game has been officially cancelled.” A roar of frustration rose from the bank . . . . “We want Rugby, we want Rugby”, chanted the crowd. One of them turned to the pressbox: “They are all bloody Commies, write that, bloody Commies.”

Still the crowd lingered, wondering perhaps if the announcement was a ruse to make the demonstrators move. “Please vacate the grandstand,” said O’Connor, and only a few moved. A Maori woman broke out from the crowd, ran to the edge of the demonstrators, and laid about with her umbrella. She was shepherded away. As the demonstrators began to file off the ground and reached the south-western corner gate some of the crowd jumped the fence and began to attack. The police moved in and managed to stop them, but not the torrent of cans which poured down on the head of the protesters’ column. The column wavered, broke, part of it fell back and then as the police line thickened, moved on again and out of the ground.

“We want Rugby, we want Rugby,” the cry shriller now, so many of the crowd turning away, but so many in the grandstand still defying requests to clear the stand. Gradually they moved, and the spectators on the bank went just as reluctantly. Twenty or thirty of them stayed, hurling abuse and then empty cans at us. “You bastards did this, bloody news media,” shouted one, and a can went past my ear and into the midriff of John du Toit behind me. A young man scrambled up the front of the pressbox, ripped away Donoghue ‘s notebook and grabbed for his typewriter. Donoghue won the tug-of-war, and those of us in the front line dragged our machines out of reach. The abuse and the cans kept flying, not a policeman within cooee, and there was my 59-year-old Dutchman of Thursday morning at the airport standing on a seat in front of me. We were almost friends two days ago. Now he was as bilious as the rest. Still the cans flew, until with very stately tread four policemen marched along from our left. One policeman moved forward as if to grab a can-thrower, stopped and returned to the line. Slowly the barrage stopped. The Battle of Waikato was over, or so it seemed.

Out from the grandstand walked the Springboks, all now in their dress uniforms, scuffing the turf with their toes, an air of sadness about them. Then they drifted away into the stand. The tables for the after-match function were laden with food, and decorated with bright gold and green rosettes. People ate tasteless food; drank sour beer, spoke in whispers, for it was the wake after a game had died.

The two faces of Ron Don, the Auckland Rugby Union chairman and such a forthright champion of the tour. One Auckland journalist approached him. “Now I suppose you will be happy,” said Don scathingly. Another approached within a minute. “Have you heard the club scores from Auckland?” asked Don.

Professor Claassen, tight-lipped, his face grey, would not comment. George Simpkin, the Waikato coach, would offer only the comment:
“We needed that game,” although he was later to blame the media.

Six of us walked back to our hotel through deserted streets. When we arrived we found how foolish we had been as the tales of grim reprisal were told . . . of photographers being kicked and punched, and hiding their gear in a nearby house so they would not be recognised . . . of television men jostled, their equipment damaged, their van attacked . .
of John Howson of Radio New Zealand lucky enough to have a full can go through a narrow opening in his box, and not shatter the glass. Tales of Rugby spectators seeking vengeance, of cracked demonstrators’ heads, of a first-aid wagon being attacked.

The sight of policemen at our hotel still livid with rage. And then to the police press conference, at a hail so hastily arranged that we were placed in the middle of an orchid show, and no-one was allowed to smoke lest the flowers be damaged.

A grim-faced Walton saying that it was a sad day for law and order, giving his reasons why the police had not made a baton charge, praise for the restraint of the Rugby public, the insistence that he and not the politicians would decide on the future of the tour, and then his off-hand joke that if he was required to resign before his retirement in December he had enough leave in hand to carry him through to then.

But the main impact came when Walton described how a plane had been stolen and the great fear was that the pilot would crash it into the grandstand. This, said Walton, was the reason the match had been cancelled, not the scrum of protesters on the field.

At other places the police were standing down, their fury almost spilling over into a vote of no-confidence in their commanders.

Hamilton was a grim, lonely place that night. Some newspapermen who ventured out were hassled, but not hit. Most of us stayed inside, and drank tasteless beer. The tour surely was at an end. We did not know joy or sadness at the prospect, just resignation. The feeling only that sport, and New Zealand, had been suddenly swept into a maelstrom of bitterness and violence that we had read about in other lands, but which could not happen here. It had happened.

New Zealand had turned 21.”

From “Barbed Wire Boks” by Don Cameron, published by Rugby Press Ltd 1981, p.120-26.