The rebel rugby tour: Boots and all

By Alan Perrott

It is 25 years since the rebel rugby tour to South Africa that polarised our nation. Members of the 1986 Cavaliers tour talk to Alan Perrott about why they were so determined to go, the off-field lessons they learned and why they have no regrets.

Hika Reid was more than happy to join the Cavaliers tour after his prospects of touring South Africa as an All Black were ended by court action. Photo / Alan Gibson
Hika Reid was more than happy to join the Cavaliers tour after his prospects of touring South Africa as an All Black were ended by court action. Photo / Alan Gibson

Putting on the black had always given Warwick Taylor a thrill. But not this time.

It was 1986 and the 15-test All Black midfielder was looking forward to the end of the Cavaliers rebel tour of South Africa.

What began as a defiant statement about amateur sporting values, the pursuit of this country's rugby holy grail and a desire to see the apartheid system up close, was now proving to be a hopeless cause.

Taylor's team was 2-1 down in the four-test series and convinced Welsh referee Ken Rowlands was going to make damn sure it ended 3-1 to the home side.

"As an All Black," says Taylor, "going to South Africa and winning would have been perfect. It was what we'd all dreamed about since we were kids. But 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."

This is quite an admission from someone who had gone to South Africa on the Cavaliers tour knowing it put his career in jeopardy and despite some strident opposition. He'd even taken his wife along with him because he had feared for her safety while he was away.

Surely then, if he could have his time again, he'd stay home?

"I've thought about that ... and if I was in the same position as then, I'd still want to go, definitely. I went for the rugby, full stop. If I'd known that we would have no chance when we got there, then maybe not, but it still gave me an opportunity I'd have never got otherwise. I got to see the place and what was happening there for myself and I made up my own mind about it. So, yes, I'd still go."

Such determination probably surprises anyone who sees any contact with apartheid-era South Africa in, well, black and white terms.

Then again, 30 years on from the 1981 Springbok tour and a quarter of a century after the Cavaliers tour, the players' views still get lost amid the batons and flour bombs, leaving them looking like pawns or dupes following orders or the money. But if any act can be said to highlight where they stood, it was their decision in 1986 to ignore the rugby union, the Government, and a whole range of personal consequences to embark on an unprecedented rebel tour of South Africa after a planned official All Black tour was cancelled.

The tour was called off following an injuction lodged by two Auckland lawyers, Patrick Finnigan and Phillip Recordon, who argued it would contravene the rugby union's constitutional promise to promote, foster and develop the game. Warwick Taylor and the the rest of his team weren't so much disappointed as furious.

On July 13, All Black lock Murray Pierce was watching his club team, Wellington, play Oriental-Rongotai when Finnigan and Recordon's injunction was announced. He was expecting to fly out to South Africa in five days, so he'd opted out of playing to avoid injury.

Pierce, a policeman at the time, had no idea of what had happened until another spectator told him. The team couldn't leave until the case was completed.

"You couldn't print my response," he says. "It's one of those moments in life that you never forget because I'd been looking forward to it for so long. I was really excited and having that taken away by a couple of smart lawyers, it was just gutting."

The NZRU officially canned the tour two days later and the case was quicky dropped. Up in Rotorua, Pierce's squad mate and rugby cult hero, Hika "the Hooker" Reid, was plain angry. He still fumes over 1981 and the impact of the anti-tour campaign: "Remember the Waikato game? Two hundred people stopped 30,000 people from enjoying themselves. How ridiculous is that? It was pathetic."

Reid had been so determined to tour he'd played the trial match with a broken jaw. "I wouldn't let the doctors wire me up, that's how much I wanted it. I was like everyone else, I'd been watching those games since I was a kid and that was my shot.

"Everyone around me had been really supportive, but then I'm sure anyone who didn't want the tour to go ahead wouldn't have approached me. I know I wouldn't have approached me. Especially after it was called off, I wasn't exactly a happy chappy. So when the Cavaliers came up I was more than happy to jump on ..."

As for Taylor, the injunction at least gave him some temporary relief from those opposed to the tour. He'd only started teaching at Christchurch's Burnside High School the previous year and their staffroom wasn't exactly a bastion of pro-tour sentiment.

He'd been the subject of protest marches around school grounds - pro and anti, with teachers on both sides - and wasn't short of other people's opinions. A Christchurch resident unlucky enough to share the same name had his fence graffitied for it.

But he was still keen to go. Aside from the obvious challenge, it also presented a chance to make amends for his brother Murray, who had been part of the Waikato team that famously didn't play the Boks in 1981, and his own non-appearance from the bench during Otago's match later in the tour.

All the same, he attended a few Hart (Halt All Racist Tours) meetings and pro-tour rallies before deciding he needed to go to South Africa to see for himself. Like the other players (with the notable exceptions of coach Brian Lochore, future World Cup winning captain David Kirk and winger John Kirwan), he raised his hand when a rebel tour was first mooted.

Not that it happened easily. The planning at this end was mostly run by lock forward Andy Haden and Auckland businessman Winston McDonald, but there were several false starts and constant media denials before the balloon finally went up in April 1986.

The bulk of the squad left as quietly they could, assembling in Sydney before flying on as a group. They were later met in South Africa by those - including Taylor - who had been playing for a World XV team in England. According to Taylor, they had left for Britain still unsure whether the rebel tour was on or not.

Just in case, he had left a letter with his wife apologising to his school for the extended absence and requesting further leave.

Rugby legend Sir Colin Meads was a late inclusion as coach, despite doubting their chances of success. No matter, to his way of thinking the trip wasn't just a unique sporting adventure, it was about bridge-building and sticking one to the protesters he considers hypocrites for focusing on one injustice while ignoring others. So he was in, even though it would cost him his job.

"I was a New Zealand selector back then, and while they couldn't sack me I was asked not to reapply next year. So it was curtains for me. But that didn't worry me, I had no hesitation in going. I mean I had already been twice, and twice been pipped at the post by the referees. But for those other guys, this trip was their only chance at an opportunity they thought had passed them by. It was the ultimate in rugby."

While he was still in the air, a black wreath was delivered to Pierce's home, where his wife was with their newborn baby. By the time he found out, his wife and child had already moved in with her mother as a precaution.

"That was up-front, personal intimidation," he says. "It was a scary thought to know that these people knew where we lived. When your family gets dragged into something like this the whole dynamic changes."

But it wasn't enough for him to abandon the tour. The political debate didn't interest him, all that mattered was testing himself against the best.

Taylor's tour didn't start happily - a case of haemorrhoids kept him out of the early matches - but the delay turned out to be motivating. "Once I got on the field I really enjoyed it and I played some of the best rugby of my career, even if no one here ever saw it. They were all hard games against really hard men."

Results-wise, the squad won seven of their eight midweek games, including a notably violent encounter with Natal. As for the tests, they should have won the first but lost; should have lost the second but won; and then copped hammerings in the third and fourth. By the last test the players had become so angry with their Welsh referee that one player pointedly shouldered him aside, one of the greatest no-no's in rugby.

Off-field, although Cavaliers, the team had resolved to behave like All Blacks and stick rigidly to their usual routines and rituals. This must have suited their hosts, who constantly referred to the team as All Blacks from the moment they landed.

The wives and girlfriends stayed in different hotels to the players and were allowed to see their men only the night before a match and, if travel timetables permitted, on Sundays.

"We were totally blinded by what we were there to achieve," says Taylor. "So much so that I had one of the worst arguments ever with my wife. She wanted to know why I didn't go to see her more and I kept saying how I wasn't there for a holiday. That was a big argument."

It can't have helped that he spent some of his free time on a fact-finding mission, preferably away from the ever-present bodyguards. On one occasion several players talked someone into driving them through the Soweto township, only to find that whenever they stopped everyone would run away. After a few repeats they realised a bunch of white guys driving around a black district in an unmarked van wasn't a great idea.

"They must have thought we were police, which is why no one would talk to us. And the further in we drove, the less we felt like we should be there ... so I'd have to say that when I got back [home] and people started to ask me what it was like, well, I couldn't really tell them.

"If two people went and did exactly what we'd done on the tour, they could both come back with completely different views on the place, so I didn't really talk about my thoughts much. There was the apartheid, which was horrible. And calling the Maori players "honorary whites" didn't go down that well - but we were there for the rugby and I think we blanked a lot of that stuff out. But subconsciously, I do think there was the thought that if we could beat them, then we'd have shown them that their system wasn't right."

The racial subplot isn't something Reid is comfortable discussing. It remains "sensitive." But he is bullish about his enjoyment of the tour. He was even elevated to senior hooker after captain Andy Dalton had his jaw broken by one of the cheapest shots in rugby history (still viewable on YouTube).

"It [South Africa] was an amazing place. I don't remember too much about the games, just that they were all big guys, and hard, really hard. What I remember the most is the country and the game parks. I had these photos from when I was a kid of [All Black winger] Bryan Williams on a jeep in a game park with a gun and a couple of springboks, and now I have those memories myself. I even saw a lion making a kill, one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. That's what I took from the experience."

Pierce had a similar reaction. "I fell in love with the country and the people, and really enjoy going back there whenever I can. It's a rugby country full of like-minded locals and we got on really well. They have a similar attitude to rugby, alcohol and women - and in about that order too."

He also says the trip made him a better player, elevating him from fringe selection to lineout mainstay. "I went over as a fairly new All Black and I struggled. But it was a great stepping stone, I had a few weaknesses in my game pointed out to me, then I went away and fixed them."

Taylor enjoyed the countryside almost too much. During a team run through a game park, he broke away and was pulled up by angry security staff when he ran out of their sight. He understood the next day when they found fresh lion prints on the route he had taken.

But he is more ambivalent about some of the people he encountered. The squads didn't gel very well, often leaving the New Zealanders feeling unappreciated, and no one seems to have got on with the Afrikaaners. "But then they probably felt we were whingers. I know we felt like everything was going against us by the end, but that may have been the mindset we got caught in ... it seemed like we were very much on our own and that was after we'd sacrificed so much to get there. Some guys had risked or left their jobs and we weren't even sure we'd be allowed to play again, so to not get a fair shake was very frustrating."

Of course, there has always been talk that they were at least well compensated for their efforts. There were rumours of returning players buying farms or expensive tractors, while pre-tour talk claimed they were in line for up to $100,000 each. But the Cavaliers are keeping mum, possibly because they remain products of rugby's pre-professional era where openly playing for cash was still heresy. According to Taylor, they were given a daily allowance as per normal on All Black tours, while Pierce would make no comment apart from reaffirming that he didn't go to get rich. Meads says he joined the tour after the pay negotiations were completed and wasn't interested enough to ask. While some huge numbers have been bandied about, he writes them off as ridiculous.

Whatever they returned with in their wallets, they arrived to a chilly reception and scurrying through airports to avoid the cameras was hardly a high point in the star players' careers.

Meads, true to form, got off the plane and went straight back to work as a selector. Not everyone was happy about it but he, no doubt, couldn't have cared less.

As for the players, they were banned for only two matches, although for some of the older tourists that was two tests too many and their careers ended. Their final "test" matches will never feature in any All Black records.

Unfortunately for Reid, his ban opened the door for Sean Fitzpatrick to claim the All Black hooker's berth and while he did get two further tests, his international career was played out with the New Zealand Maori. "Yeah, the rugby didn't go so well but I've got great memories of the tour, the country and the camaraderie, you know? In the end, you take all the positives, all the good things and you leave the rest."

Taylor was also re-selected for a test against Australia when his ban ended, but he joined the team late as he had to go to court to get his teaching job back. He still works at Burnside High School and has his Cavaliers jersey.

Pierce settled back into the supportive bosom of the police and, spurred by his South African experience, took to travelling. He is returning to South Africa for the ninth time this year. Both Taylor and Pierce went on to receive winners' medals at the 1987 World Cup.

One question remains. Regardless of the protests, the plotting and the in-fighting and whether the tour was right or wrong, without the Cavaliers' bloody-minded determination to take on South Africa and the player cull that followed, would the 1987 victory have happened?

- NZ Herald

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