Remembering rebel All Blacks tour of apartheid South Africa

Rugby union was one of the last international sports to cut ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa and in 1986 a rebel tour by the New Zealand Cavaliers threatened to rip the game apart. It is exactly 30 years since that divisive tour, but the thorny issue of race remains the number one sporting topic in the Republic.
New Zealand's wing John Kirwan in action against Wales in the 1987 World Cup. Picture: GettyImagesNew Zealand's wing John Kirwan in action against Wales in the 1987 World Cup. Picture: GettyImages
New Zealand's wing John Kirwan in action against Wales in the 1987 World Cup. Picture: GettyImages

Last week, the South African minister for sport, Fikile Mbalula, barred four sporting bodies, South African cricket, athletics, netball and rugby, from bidding to host any events. The reason given was the lack of “transformation”, the word used in the Republic for the integration of black athletes into national and regional sports teams.

At least now the battle is fought with rhetoric because 30 and more years ago things were a lot less refined. A South African tour of New Zealand in 1981 had sparked a pitched battle on Hamilton’s Rugby Park between hundreds of anti-apartheid protesters and the infamous “Red Squad” riot police, the match eventually abandoned.

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Fast forward to 1984, Bristol’s uncapped black centre Ralph Knibbs declined to join England’s highly controversial tour of South Africa. One year later, two New Zealand lawyers halted the All Blacks’ planned tour to South Africa with a legal challenge, insisting that it was incompatible with the NZRU’s constitutional requirement to protect and promote the game.

It was in this poisonous political atmosphere that the rebel tour took shape. A squad of New Zealand players met in April 1986 at Sydney airport before flying to South Africa. They were dubbed the “Cavaliers” and sported a black strip, albeit with yellow trim. The South African media referred to them as “New Zealand” throughout the tour. Just two of the original players selected declined to tour, scrum-half David Kirk and the winger John Kirwan, who recalls breaking the news to his erstwhile team-mates.

“It was the hardest three or four weeks of my life,” says Kirwan, speaking from New Zealand. “I remember the meeting clearly, it took place in a small room at the NZRU’s offices. I had to stand up in front of my peers and tell them I wasn’t going to tour with them. I didn’t feel it was right for me at the time.

“I spoke to my dad and he said, ‘what does your gut say?’ And my gut told me this was wrong. It was the hardest decision for me.” The players who did make up the 30-strong squad were said to have earned NZ$100,000 (£48,000 at current exchange rates) for the trip, a tidy sum in those days but a poor return in light of the damage done to reputations not to mention the punishing schedule. The squad played 12 matches in the space of 39 days, with the Kiwis winning seven from eight of the midweek matches but losing the “Test” series 3-1.

Some of the biggest names in New Zealand rugby travelled: Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans, Grant Fox, Bernie Fraser, Murray Mexted, Buck Shelford, Andy Dalton as captain with Sir Colin Meads as coach, only to find themselves fetching up on the wrong side of history. The New Zealand Herald caught up with several players a few years ago and few expressed any remorse or regret.

Centre Warwick Taylor told the Herald that a series win in South Africa was then the Holy Grail of New Zealand sporting achievement and, if put in the same place again, he would opt to go “for the rugby” before adding a more sobering coda.

“I gradually realised it had been a false hope and it became harder and harder to pick myself up for each game. We had always been used to feeling the support of the whole country behind us. I remember, just before the last Test, I had an All Black tracksuit with me and I put it on because [I thought] that’d get me going. But that’s when I realised we weren’t All Blacks, we were there as individuals and we weren’t representing New Zealand, we were representing ourselves and the country wasn’t behind us. We were just young guys who wanted our chance to beat South Africa on their own turf. That was a bit naive because it was never going to happen.”

Upon their return the players were not accorded a heroes’ welcome but neither were they vilified by a rugby community that probably felt they couldn’t afford to lose an entire generation. The rebels were banned for just two matches, a one-off game against France and the first in a three-match series against Australia.

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The selectors picked a pitifully young team to play the French, dubbed the “Baby Blacks”, which boasted just 19 caps to France’s 285. Kirwan was the most experienced with seven, while 11 Kiwis made their debut that day including a young Sean Fitzpatrick, who recalled shaking hands with his team-mates in the lead up to the game – “I didn’t really know them”. The hard man of the team, “Smokin’ Joe” Stanley, had tears coursing down his cheeks before kick off such was the emotion in the New Zealand dressing room. They won.

“The sense of elation afterwards was probably greater than anything I’ve ever experienced in my rugby career,” recalls Kirk, who went on to lift the inaugural World Cup.

“It was an amazing time because the French team was unbelievable,” says Kirwan. “They were a fantastic side with guys like Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco, Pierre Berbizier, Daniel Dubroca, Jean Condom and Eric Champ.

“Joe Stanley… I had played with him for a long time and he was about to get his first All Blacks cap at the age of 29. He wasn’t going to let any Frenchman run through him, that’s for sure.

“It was a real changing of the guard for us, a new breed of player was coming through and changing the game. The Cavaliers tour was the old guard, the ‘Baby Blacks’ were the new guard. It was important for the country that we win that match and it was important for the players. It was a very special time.”

Not everything that followed was quite as uplifting, especially for Kirk. The Baby Blacks lost their next Test against Australia by just one point after performing, according to contemporary reports, better than they had done against France.

The selectors, with Cavaliers coach Meads back in the saddle, thought otherwise and made wholesale changes for the second Australian international, picking a team with ten rebels, including all eight forwards, although Kirk was retained as captain. New Zealand won that second Test by a short nose but were thumped 22-9 in the third and decisive match.

Worse was to come for Kirk. In a Kafkaesque nightmare, the hero of the story became the villain, at least in the eyes of some older heads. Kirk lost the captaincy to Jock Hobbs when the All Blacks toured France in October of 1986 and the cerebral scrum-half was targeted for personal abuse by several Cavaliers who were unhappy not just that he had broken ranks on South Africa but that Kirk had voiced his reservations so compellingly.

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“They saw themselves as victims because they had never imagined the tour would cause such bad feelings in New Zealand,” said Kirk years later. “On the other hand, I hadn’t gone and I’d received some positive press as a result. I was an easy target for them to vent their feelings of unhappiness and bitterness.”

“There was a feeling that he [Kirk] had made the decision in order to get the captaincy,” says Kirwan, who never suffered the same abuse. “That wasn’t true but that is what some guys thought. I don’t think it [the bullying] was about not going to South Africa, it was about the way he did it.”

After lifting the 1987 World Cup Kirk retired from international rugby aged 26 to study at Oxford University. A highly successful businessman, he now lives and works in Sydney.

That 1986 French tour included the infamous “Battle of Nantes” – the reminder of Shelford’s torn scrotum still makes men wince the world over – but somehow the New Zealand squad recovered in time to triumph at the 1987 World Cup.

The rebel tour had one further, unexpected consequence. The new influx of players ushered in with the Baby Blacks brought with them a fresh approach to the game, a new style of running rugby, and proved it was still possible to teach an old Fox new tricks.

Up to that point the All Blacks had been as stodgy as plum duff, dominated by the boot of stand-off Grant Fox. After the Baby Blacks made their impact, the outside backs demanded more ball and, thanks to assistant coach John Hart, they got it, with full-back John Gallacher and Kirwan taking full advantage.

“For 100 years we had been called world champions but there hadn’t been a World Cup so we simply couldn’t afford to lose the very first one,” says Kirwan. “We had to win to keep our ancestors happy.

“I think in 1987 John Hart had been playing this running rugby with Auckland and he wanted us [the All Blacks] to change the way we played. I was great mates with Foxy but we had terrible rows about how to play the game. He wanted to kick everything and I wanted the ball in my hands.

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“In ’87 we all got into the gym before the World Cup. Hart helped us play an expansive game, certainly compared to teams like England, and he brought ‘Grizz’ Wylie and SBL [head coach, Sir Brian Lochore] on board.

“We took the game to a new physical level with a new style of rugby and ran the ball from all over.”

As Italy can confirm. New Zealand won the opening game 70-6, scoring 12 tries in the process, the best of them a length-of-the-field effort by Kirwan. Almost 30 years later, the All Blacks are still playing the same adventurous rugby – a solitary grain of good to emerge from an ugly, unedifying event