The Rugby Rivalry that Brought New Zealand to the Brink of Civil War


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Rugby has been a unifying force for the Maori and the Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent) ever since the sport arrived in the country in 1870. The national team, the All Blacks, has always had a roster filled with Maori and Pakeha players—but then South Africa's apartheid policies brought politics onto the field.

Boxing with the Springboks

One of the longest-running, most celebrated rivalries in sports history is that of the All Blacks and the Springboks, South Africa's national team. The two archenemies have been battling it out since the 1920s, but when the South African government ramped up its apartheid policies in 1948, racial segregation became part of the game. Suddenly, the All Blacks' dark-skin Maori players were no longer welcome in South Africa. In 1949, New Zealand was forced to send an all-white team to the rugby match in Durban, where the Springboks beat them soundly. Opposition to the racially selective team exploded back home, and the protests escalated in the following years.

By 1960, a group of New Zealanders had coordinated a "No Maori, No Tour" campaign, which included a 150,000-signature petition protesting that year's South African games. Although the All Blacks went through with the tour, the New Zealand government eventually bowed to the pressure and prohibited the All Blacks from playing matches against the Springboks.

It was clear, however, that many New Zealanders didn't want politics getting in the way of rugby—and that included the country's newly elected prime minister, Robert Muldoon.

In 1976, he allowed the All Blacks to travel to South Africa to play, saying that "politics should stay out of sport." This time, the world was watching. Outraged by Muldoon's decision, Tanzania's president Julius Nyerere decided to take a stand. He called for a retaliatory strike against South Africa by boycotting the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Twenty-three nations, most with largely black populations, followed suit.

Then all hell broke loose. In 1981, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union invited the Springboks to come to the country for another tour of games. Although the government advised against it, no direct efforts were made to call off the tour. Immediately, the nation was divided—either you opposed South Africa's policy and supported the boycott, or you supported the freedom of sportsmen to play against any team. Deep rifts formed between families and friends, and everyone seemed divided over the fierce debate.

Life After Politics

The Springboks arrived in New Zealand on July 19, 1981, with plans to play matches against teams throughout the country for the next two months. But with each game, the protests grew. Police squads in full riot gear confronted demonstrators, who were trying to halt games by ripping down fences outside the stadiums. Mass arrests and accusations of police brutality accompanied every match. The climax came on September 12, during the final game in Auckland. All afternoon, smoke bombs and magnesium flares burned to keep protesters at bay, but one man found a way around the police. He flew a Cessna airplane over the stadium and dropped flour bombs on spectators and players, leaving one All Black team member injured. There was no civil war, but "The Tour"—as New Zealanders still know it—brought the nation to the brink.

A House Divided

The All Blacks won two out of three matches against the Springboks, but the ugliness of The Tour made many lose their love for the sport. Fortunately, rugby experienced a revival in 1987, when the All Blacks hosted and won the first rugby World Cup. Today, the sport remains a unifying factor for the country, and each loss is treated like a national disaster. "There's a sort of desolate decay and the smell of death," said All Black player Anton Oliver after they lost in the quarterfinals of the 2007 World Cup. Of course, any nation that takes its losses so deeply to heart is destined to remain a rugby superpower for years to come.