July 22 1981 – South Africa 24 vs Poverty Bay 6.
Because of the very strong feelings about South Africa’s apartheid policy the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand was always going to bring protests and controversy. No one knew just how the protests would play out. The first tour match, in Gisborne, remote from the main centres where protests were likely to be strongest, would it was expected provide some answers. But, did it?
DAY 4 — Gisborne, July 22, v Poverty Bay
Match day, the long-awaited event at hand, and that old-fashioned big-game atmosphere along Gladstone Road in the centre of the city. The shops and restaurants and bars busy, the pavements thick with people, a Rugby badge here and there, farmers down from the hills in their tweed jackets and fore-and-aft hats … Rugby atmosphere.
And rumours. Busloads of demonstrators could not arrive because petrol stations along the way had refused to serve them. The Waioeka Gorge road had been closed to protesters’ buses. It was hard to tell where fact ended and fancy started.
But there was a good, solid Rugby feel about the day, and at Rugby Park, a pleasant ground with the rich green grass of the Gisborne Park golf course stretching away behind the embankment. Then the police came, spaced about the ground, groups of six in the corner. The crowd could not cheer a curtain raiser which would have knocked the soft ground about, so they cheered the police, and the Springbok non-players as they took their seats in the grandstand. Wynand Claassen doffed his cap in a gesture of thanks.
Then, from our high vantage point in the pressbox at the back of the grandstand we could see the protest march arrive, and then curl round down the road on the far side of the golf course. They halted there, and then were over the fence and onto the course, police on their flanks, scores of cameramen as the advance guard. It looked for all the world like one of those television golf films, the long distance shot of the golfers and gallery coming down the fairway, and Longhurst’s lovely voice predicting what club Nicklaus or Palmer or someone would need to reach the green. But this time the placards held aloft did not say “Quiet, please” or give leader-board scores. They carried such words as “Boks go home,” “Shame,” and the like. It would have been an alien sight to Longhurst.
On and on the march came, policemen jog-trotting from the town end of the ground as reinforcements.
The first roar came from the ground, the Springbok and Poverty Bay players bounding out, the Springboks cooped up since mid-day and now their great moment was at hand. From the crowd came two protesters, running across the ground, staying to harangue the Springbok forwards as Cohn Gregan checked his watch and prepared to signal the kick-off. The track-suit police caught them both, a small red-headed man losing his woollen hat as he was taken away. By now the marchers had disappeared in the hollow behind the embankment and there was Rugby to watch. . . a Springbok kick-off that did not go ten metres (was this an augury that the tour would also not run its proper course?), a lineout, Bekker penalised as he was held aloft, and Whittle pushing a long penalty attempt to the right of the posts.
Then, beyond our view, the uproar from the golf course, part of the embankment fence torn down, police reinforcements moving more urgently now.
And so was the Rugby, Poverty Bay bustling into the Springbok 22, Tobias skying a drop at goal, Heunis unhappy with his timing when he missed a place-kick from 40 metres. The Springbok backs unhappy, too, for they stood far apart and their passing was jerky. Heunis missed again, Poverty Bay broke out with Spence leading the forwards, the game nicely balanced, Poverty Bay getting over their nervous start, the Springboks starting to find their rhythm.
And all the time Dan Retief, of the Rand Daily Mail, was dictating over the telephone a running report which was to be rushed into a special edition. A loud voice, has Dan, and not a bad imagination either. As the turmoil behind the embankment spilled round to the left and the protesters rallied Dan had the women protesters weeping in frustration. Good eyesight.
At last the Springboks knitted together. Darius Botha broke away from a forward scramble, the ball went out to Krantz in the clear. He ran, chip-kicked, recovered and scored the first points of the tour with a flourishing dive. Immediate the Springboks were back again, Marais breaking from the end of a lineout, finding the loping Tobias with men to
his left and 22 metres to the line. He loped and then, superbly, accelerated, staying for a split-second in the gap and then soaring away majestically
for the try which Beck converted.
So it was halftime at 10-0, and two policemen visited the referee Mr Gregan in midfield. There was still trouble on the golf course, and a touch of concern among the police. Mr Gregan had been told before the match that if the pitch was invaded he and the players were to go to the ends of the field. Now the order was changed. Mr Gregan and the players were to go to the stand if the demonstrators broke through — “we are getting a bit thin,” said the police.
Not Poverty Bay. They soon had their teeth into the Springboks, Whittle missing a long penalty goal, Krantz bustled into some jittery defence in the left corner, a charge down the middle and van Aswegen off-side at the ruck. Whittle kicked the goal for 10-3 and five minutes later had another chance, but the goal that might have really set Poverty Bay alight drifted to the right.
The Springboks regrouped and about halfway Marais picked up, found Wolmarans who fired a low, dreadful pass at Tobias. Without breaking stride Tobias picked up perfectly, the gap was there, and soon Krantz was cruising away for his second try and 14-3. Whittle struck back, after yet another valiant Bay forward charge, with his second penalty goal, but by now the Springboks were in charge and the Poverty Bay loose forwards lost their bite as the powerful Springbok pack dragged them into the
Six minutes from the end Poverty Bay had a defensive five-yard scrum. The Springboks massed, and charged. The Bay pack did not slide back, it disintegrated and Visser was able to plunge forward from lock for the try. As the final trimming Heunis drifted into the line, Krantz was away round to the posts for the try and Tobias had the conversion.
There were no post-mortems. Smith was pleased with a first-up win and the way his players had adjusted to the sticky conditions. And there was a blissful glow in the Poverty Bay room. They had lost 6-24 but they had battled nobly, none more so than Duncan their captain who seemed to have the shine of victory in his eyes. Newlands, a grafting man who had packed against the Lions and the Pumas, reckoned he had not struck such a physically hard pack as the Springboks, and he had a contented glow in
his eyes as he spoke. It was a poignant moment, amid a team that had played with admirable spirit, that had lost, but had the look of victory in their faces.
There was talk of victory, too, at the police conference that evening at which Chief Inspector Brian Davies, head of Operation Rugby, and his commissioner, Walton, reviewed the day’s activities. Davies was clinically cool, Walton heavier of tread. He had been surprised by the intensity of the assault on the police lines and the embankment fence. If the demonstrators were to maintain such intensity, said Walton, then they could expect harder treatment from the police. The questions flew thick and fast, suggestions of police brutality, hair-splitting questions designed to have the police agree with the questioner. Davies met and turned back the questions calmly and coolly, never at a loss for a reply, never allowing himself to be questioned into a corner.
Walton had the last word. The police had won, he said, because the game started on time and finished on time, and that was the purpose of the
Or almost the last words. Others came from Kevin Schreiber, a photographer from the Melbourne Age who, with his reporter David Elias, had covered the rumpus rather than the Rugby. “New Zealand police,” said Schreiber, “are incredible. Australian police would never have taken that from those demonstrators. They would have waded in.”
The last word, and was it prophetic, came from Gerhard Burger, a South African Rugby reporter with the game deep in his heart. Burger left the police conference, and the barrage of provocative questions, with his head low. It was as if he was in some alien world. “I have never,” said Burger, “felt so sick in my life.” But even then there was the feeling that this was just a start, there might be more sickening things around the corner.”
From “Barbed Wire Boks” by Don Cameron, published by Rugby Press Ltd 1981, p.110-114.