Flashback: One of the most bizarre incidents in rugby history

By Sam Warlow

As the All Blacks prepare to take on the Springboks in Durban this weekend, we look back at one of the most bizarre events world rugby has ever seen.

The event took place in Durban 2002 and starred one fresh faced Richie McCaw, one unfortunate David McHugh and one crazed Springbok fan.

The All Blacks, coming off a loss to Australia the week before, were looking to rebound against South Africa and clinch the 2002 Tri Nations title in front of 52,000 raging fans.

Despite the game being a tense encounter not decided until the final ten minutes, it will forever be remembered for one shocking incident involving one of those crazed 52,000.

A lasting memory from this game was the attack on Irish referee David McHugh.

Early in the second half, drunken South African spectator Pieter van Zyl was unhappy with McHugh's decision making, and decided to take matters into his own hands.

McHugh had earlier awarded the All Blacks a penalty try after a high tackle on Tana Umaga, and denied a South African try to Breyton Paulse after an interference call on James Dalton.

Van Zyl clearly took exception, and as a scrum was set he charged onto the field, straight towards McHugh.

The big beer-bellied South African, donning a Springbok jersey a couple of sizes too small, grabbed McHugh and wrestled him to the ground.

Richie McCaw, in just his ninth test match, was among the first to react. He grabbed van Zyl and along with a couple of Springboks dragged the offender from the scene.

Former Herald rugby editor Wynne Gray was at the ground:

"It was weird because I was probably writing some notes and looked up and saw this geezer running onto the field and thinking 'what are the security blokes doing?'.

"And next thing I see was Richie thumping him, the only actual violence McCaw has done on the field in his career of course, and you're looking around going 'What the hell is going on here'?.

"It defied belief really. You could understand people getting on the field but you'd think they would not get too far. But here was a guy who is not exactly the most svelte athlete of all time, who has managed to waddle halfway across the field and get to all the players. That was the most dumfounding piece about the whole thing.

"Some of the most bizarre stuff I've ever seen on a rugby field."

The aftermath

The game was delayed for ten minutes while van Zyl was taken from the field with a bloody nose by security and police.

McHugh was left with a dislocated shoulder and had to be taken from the field.

43-year-old van Zyl was subsequently banned by the South African Rugby Union from attending any matches under their control. He was fined 3000 rand and charged with assault to do grievous bodily harm and trespassing.

McCaw later spoke about the handling of the incident.

"I don't know whether I dealt with it properly but certainly a couple of the South Africans did," said McCaw. "He got what he deserved."

All Blacks second-five Aaron Mauger said the pitch invasion made a few of his teammates feel uneasy at the time.

"It had a few of the boys looking over their shoulders for about 10 minutes,'' Mauger said.

"We didn't want anybody running up and getting a dagger in the back or anything like that. The boys were a bit worried for a wee bit but once we got back into the game it didn't really have too much effect on us."

All Blacks coach John Mitchell did not comment on the incident, other than calling Van Zyl an "idiot''.

The actual game was eventually won by the All Blacks 30-23, after a converted try in the final ten minutes broke a 23-23 deadlock and sealed victory.

After the game Inspector Michael Read said a debriefing of all interested parties would be held in Durban to establish how van Zyl gained access to the field while the game was in progress.

Van Zyl was unrepentant, saying "don't forget that the incident happened when the referee closed his one eye and ceased to see the Springboks".

The incident was labelled the "ugliest moment in South African rugby history'' by South African media.

Where are they now?

The famous game was McCaw's ninth test match after making his debut the previous November. He'd go onto play 139 more tests for the All Blacks, 110 as captain as he became the most capped player in international rugby history.

McCaw retired in 2015 after winning four Super Rugby titles and leading the All Blacks to Rugby World Cup glory in 2011 and 2015.

Richie McCaw lifts the William Webb Ellis Cup after his 148th and final test for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty
Richie McCaw lifts the William Webb Ellis Cup after his 148th and final test for the All Blacks. Photo / Getty

A film about McCaw's life, called Chasing Great, was released in September 2016 and broke the box office record for the highest grossing opening weekend for a New Zealand documentary.

McHugh continued to referee test matches for another two years until he announced his retirement in 2004, having taken charge of 29 tests. He's currently the Referee Development & Coaching Manager at the Irish Rugby Union.

As for van Zyl, one can assume his lifetime ban still stands, after South African Rugby CEO Rian Oberholzer said in 2002 "I guarantee that the person who committed the attack will never again attend a rugby match in South Africa."​

Funnily enough there will be another Piet van Zyl in Durban this weekend, but this time he is supposed to be there. Bulls halfback Piet van Zyl has been called into the Springboks squad as cover with Rudy Paige ruled out.

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