1981 Springbok tour horrors recalled

By Mark Geenty

SUN CITY, South Africa - Wynand Claasen recalls fearing a lynching when anti-apartheid protesters upturned a trailer and pounded on their dressing room window in Hamilton.

Naas Botha remembers nearly being run over by a wild-eyed woman who swerved her car towards a group players out walking.

Both insist it was the rugby tour of a lifetime but say the saddest part was seeing New Zealanders fighting each other in the streets.

The captain and star first five-eighth will join all 28 other members of that squad in the warm Pretoria sun this weekend for dinner, a few beers, a braai (barbecue), some golf and a trip to nearby Rustenberg to watch their countrymen play the All Blacks on Sunday (NZ time).

It's a world away from a chilly New Zealand winter of 1981 when their presence split a country down the middle.

Claasen, the captain, is now head of rugby at the University of Pretoria but is happy to discuss 1981 at length - even offering an invitation to his home for a braai and a beer.

For him, the tour held huge paradoxes. For any young South African rugby player raised in the grip of apartheid and sporting isolation, their dream was to tour New Zealand. It was the ultimate rugby experience, bar none.

But Claasen was also more politically minded than most here -- he was staunchly anti-apartheid and remembers being labelled a "leftist Afrikaaner" -- and knew there would be big problems. He didn't quite know how big.

"When we arrived in Gisborne and we saw the protesters and when they dropped glass and other things on the playing field, we realised it was going to be quite tough," he told NZPA.

"We were totally unprepared and I don't think even the New Zealanders knew it would be that intense."

The most fearful day for Claasen was in Hamilton when protesters tore down a wire fence, stormed on to Rugby Park and had the match cancelled.

As police grappled with those on the field, others quickly zeroed in on the dressing sheds.

"That whole debacle with the Waikato game, that really was quite frightening, very intense. We didn't know if the tour was going to carry on then the (police) red squad came in -- it was like war.

"The scary part was in the changing room standing on a bench looking out the back window.

"A whole bunch of demonstrators came out the back of the pavilion and overturned one of the those big trailers, we realised they wanted to come in and have a go at us.

"There were a few policemen that held them out."

But they continued on to Christchurch for the first test, travelled in separate groups to the match venues in the dead of night for their own safety and bedded down in squash courts, somehow managing to keep their minds on the rugby.

The All Blacks won the first test narrowly, when flanker Claasen was inexplicably omitted, the tourists stormed back to win the second test in Wellington then Allan Hewson's penalty from a controversial Clive Norling refereeing decision clinched the series 25-22 in the Auckland flour bomb test.

Claasen doesn't regret the decision to tour, and says it had as much positive impact on South Africa as it did negative in New Zealand.

He believed in 1981 the system was slowly beginning to turn -- more than a decade before Nelson Mandela finally took charge.

"I think what happened on the tour and the anti-South Africa feeling, that was the start of the final change. After that we were basically totally isolated from all sport.

"If any good came out of the tour it helped change more rapidly. It also opened New Zealanders' eyes about reform and change. It wasn't great but maybe there was some good that came out of it."

Claasen's fondest memories were the rare social occasions -- being invited to a hangi after playing in Rotorua and mixing freely with several hundred locals, and the day after the Waikato nightmare being taken to watch club rugby and entertained by a Maori cultural group.

In 1981 Botha was the golden-haired boy of South African rugby, the pivot with a huge boot, and the man who was going to lead them to a famous series victory.

He's now director of rugby at the Falcons in Brakpan, east of Johannesburg, and a comments man for television channel Supersport.

Forget all the furore in New Zealand off the field, there's one memory that still rankles with him.

"I can't complain because I had a fantastic trip to New Zealand, and it could have been slightly different if Mr Norling hadn't played a part -- but he did," Botha said.

Welshman Norling blew a crucial freekick to the All Blacks from a scrum in injury time in the third test, then penalised the Springboks for not being back 10m, which Hewson duly goaled.

Botha is adamant it was the wrong call and refuses to speak to Norling to this day.

He recalls bumping into him in a hotel lift during the 1999 World Cup.

"I didn't really go out of my way to have a nice talk to him. I didn't really have anything to say to him. I still don't have anything to say to him."

Botha says he has always carried fond memories of the tour and never once through they should return home: "Why would I? It was the tour of a lifetime. When you're 21 the last thing you're thinking about is politics."

He insists the New Zealand public were misinformed about aspects of life in South Africa and objected to what he saw as rent-a-protesters. Several protesters he met admitted they were being paid to demonstrate.

"I'd done my national training at that stage in the police force and I was asked on a number of occasions: 'How many black people do you kill in a day?' What a stupid remark."

The only time Botha stared danger directly in the face was when the team went for a stroll near their hotel early in the tour.

"The one day we were walking in the street and one girl tried to run us over. I believe the police did pick her up and got rid of her until the tour was over.

"Otherwise I never felt in danger. We can bullshit and say 'I was so worried' but that's nonsense. The New Zealand police looked after us pretty well and we had nothing to worry about."

Both Botha and Claasen insist Errol Tobias, the sole black player in the side and Botha's understudy, was readily accepted by the players although Claasen admits the team management may have held an "anti-Errol" feeling.

"If he was treated badly, that's not for me to say, that should be answered by the coaching staff," Botha says.

"I can talk about how he felt but I felt very comfortable with Errol in the squad, I didn't see him as a token and I believe he was there on merit.

"He had the right to be on the tour and he was definitely part of the whole squad."

Twenty-five years on, it seems the turmoil and violence won't be a big talking point. The beers and stories will flow freely this weekend.

One of Claasen's great friends from the tour, former All Blacks prop Billy Bush, is in South Africa and will be a guest speaker at the reunion dinner.

Claasen hoped Murray Mexted, the All Blacks No 8 in 1981 and currently in South Africa as Sky Television's comments man, would also attend.

"It's going to be fantastic," Claasen says.


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