Graham Mourie proudly held the position many young New Zealand rugby players dream of securing – captaining the All Blacks. He tells Neil Reid why he gave the mantle up when the controversial 1981 Springboks toured
It was a decision which shocked both the All Blacks and die-hard fans of the team.
Eight months before the Springboks flew into New Zealand in 1981 legendary All Black captain Graham Mourie revealed he would not line up against the tourists for either his country or his Taranaki provincial team.
The announcement created huge debate throughout the rugby world. It was also used as further ammunition by the anti-tour movement that one of the finest captains to lead the All Blacks would snub being involved in a series against the side widely regarded as the men in black's greatest rivals.
But the rich, and at-times controversial, rugby history between New Zealand and South Africa held no emotional sway in his decision-making.
Instead, in the build-up to the tour, his abhorrence to the racist apartheid system governing South Africa at the time meant morally he could never justify to himself playing the Springboks.
Forty years on, the now 68-year-old says the foundations for his stand were initially laid while he was a student in Wellington in the early 1970s.
"It [South Africa] was always a topic of conversation in flats when I was a student," Mourie told the New Zealand Herald.
"I had been a student at Victoria University in Wellington and student politics had been a lot more active in those days than they [are now]. With the training situation now, it has got to the stage where students have to work rather than worry about other things outside of study."
It wasn't just the fact he was involved in student political debate that put South Africa on Mourie's social consciousness in the early 1970s.
A bright rugby future for him was predicted after he broke into the New Zealand Juniors, New Zealand Universities and Wellington teams in 1973.
The next two years he featured in All Black trials and was mentioned as a potential selection for the side's 1976 tour of South Africa.
He ultimately missed the cut after being scrubbed from the 1976 trial due to a rib injury. The side's then coach JJ Stewart later told Mourie he "wished he had taken me".
"At that stage, I probably would have gone over there. It would have been a chance to have a look at the place," he said.
That initial stance was partly based on the fact it would be the second All Black team to tour the Republic that was allowed to feature Māori and Polynesian players, even though the likes of Sir Bryan Williams, Tane Norton, Billy Bush, Kent Lambert, Sid Going and Bill Osborne did so as "honorary whites".
Five years later and the then All Black captain had no hesitation to saying 'No' to playing the Springboks.
"I was in a leadership role as captain and I think there was also a significance in the team coming to New Zealand," he said.
"It was never going to be good for New Zealand"
Mourie was one of the world's top openside flankers during his 21-test career between 1976-82.
He is also one of the side's finest captains, including captaining the 1978 All Black team which created history by securing the side's first Grand Slam.
His leadership abilities were noted at an early stage of his career, captaining Taranaki and the New Zealand Juniors before being appointed to lead the All Blacks on debut in the side's 1976 tour to Argentina.
He captained the All Blacks in all bar three of his 61 matches for the team. And in a nod to his leadership, his 1982 autobiography was titled Captain.
One of Mourie's captaincy mantras was ensuring he did the "best job you could for the players and for the game".
In terms of the latter, he said turning down the chance to lead the side against the Springboks was a no-brainer.
"There was no way that I could stand up as a leader of the team, if not the game in New Zealand, and do something that I thought was going to be bad for it," Mourie said.
"It was never going to be good for New Zealand. As New Zealanders we have to make decisions around how we believe we should look after our country. It was pretty obvious there was going to be pretty massive civil disruption."
Mourie wasn't the first All Black to turn down the chance to play the Springboks. Ken Gray and Bob Burgess had both ruled themselves out of the 1970 tour of South Africa in protest to the repugnant apartheid regime.
"In my view apartheid, the system was bad. It discriminated on people not on ability, but on the fact they were a different colour," Mourie said.
"From my upbringing, and the way I viewed the world, that was not how the world should be."
Mourie stressed he wasn't "connected" to the anti-tour protest movement; even though his decision was celebrated through its ever-growing ranks.
Prior to announcing his stance as well as reading heavily about apartheid, he also looked into the history of the All Blacks' earlier tours of South Africa – which between 1921 and 1960 were white-only selections.
One of his main sounding boards was friend and well-known journalist Ian Fraser; who widely warned of civil unrest if the tour went ahead.
He also sought the counsel of his immediate family, saying he was more worried about how they could be impacted by any backlash.
He said his dad – who he described as a "good Taranaki farmer" - fully supported him, but did tell him he feared it could be a "risky" move in terms of future All Black selection.
"As the present All Black captain, Mourie is a national icon"
In a short statement on the night of November 18, 1980, Mourie went public with his decision.
"I obviously did not make my decision overnight," he told reporters. "I do not want to discuss it further. I don't want my decision to influence anyone else . . . it is a personal decision."
While his own announcement was somewhat understated, the reaction to it wasn't.
His stand was immediately backed by fellow All Black great Sir Wilson Whineray.
And an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald said Mourie had set a "dignified example".
"As the present All Black captain, Mourie is a national icon.
"His defection will send shock waves through the New Zealand community. Within the closed, secretive rugby world of New Zealand, his decision will pose a formidable challenge to the obsessive determination to stay onside with the South Africans."
More than 11,500km away, South African Rugby Board president Dr Danie Craven urged Mourie to rethink his decision and also visit South Africa so he could see "there is no apartheid at all in rugby".
Allan Highet, then New Zealand's Minister of Recreation and Sport, described Mourie's no-play position as "a very brave statement".
He hoped it would be a stance considered by other All Blacks, while also leading to a rethink from the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) on inviting the Boks to tour.
Meanwhile, NZRU chairman Ces Blazey said while it was a "regret", he believed "everyone is entitled to their opinion on everything".
Within days, centre Bruce Robertson – a veteran of 102 matches for the All Blacks dating back to 1972 – said he also wouldn't play against the Springboks.
Robertson made the stand in protest to things he had witnessed during the All Blacks' 1976 tour of South Africa. He played in two tests against Scotland in the lead up to the tour then retired from international rugby.
One of the greatest All Blacks, Sir Colin Meads, was among those who publicly questioned Mourie's stand.
Meads – a two-time All Black tourist to South Africa - was a firm believer that sport shouldn't mix with politics and said in late 1980 that he was "all for the tour".
"In 1976 he [Mourie] willingly went off to the Argentina with the All Blacks. He willingly went to a country where the spread and depth of atrocities have been worse than anything ever committed in South Africa".
"A few people thought I was stupid or not too intelligent"
Meads wasn't the only one to question Mourie's decision – although the former great lock was one of the few in rugby circles who shared their views known publicly.
Others highly connected to the national game preferred to speak direct to Mourie.
That included long time administrator and fervent pro-tour supporter Ron Don, who had been the manager of the first All Black team Mourie played for.
"He certainly had a couple of conversations with me if I was doing the right thing and the risks that it might involve," he said.
The potential risks included a backlash from team-mates and officials which could quash any hopes of a reselection as a player and captain.
"I had a fair bit of pressure from some people within the game who felt that I shouldn't have made that decision," Mourie said.
"There were people out in the community, and even out in my community of rural Taranaki, who probably thought I was stupid or not too intelligent in not emotionally doing the 'right' thing."
One sentiment was a constant from the pro-tour supporters both when it came to Mourie's stand, and the tour overall; sport shouldn't mix with politics.
Meads said four days after the invite to the Boks to tour was issued that "anyone who tries to mix religion with sport must be warped in the mind".
Mourie has no time for that argument, pointing out a history of white-only Springboks and a previous refusal to allow non-white players in touring teams to South Africa were political decisions.
There was also the argument that then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon was letting the sporting tour go ahead for political reasons; namely using it as a tool to raise support in rural electorates ahead of the 1981 General Election.
"There was a large view from many people in New Zealand, whether they be rugby people or not, that sport and politics don't mix . . . that you should just get on with the sport and leave the politics alone.
"I don't think that argument withstood a very basic test . . . it didn't have any validity at all."
Other players wanted to boycott the Boks
Forty years on and the brave stand taken by Mourie and Robertson is still widely respected by those opposed to the tour.
And now Mourie has confirmed that the exodus from the All Blacks could have been bigger. But some still lined up against the Boks out of fear their test careers would be over.
"I know one or two of the other players, I am not going to give you any names, said, 'We don't think it is right to play but we are not prepared to not play because we might not get picked again'," Mourie said.
The All Blacks returned to action less than two months after beating the Springboks 25-22 in the series decider at Eden Park on a year-ending tour of Romania and France.
Mourie was back as captain; something he believes he is grateful for the backing of team-mates who pushed the case for his leadership with rugby bosses.
"I know some of the senior players had made their feelings fairly strongly to people in the union that they wanted me to come back," he said. "I was probably very lucky to have support from senior players."
Mourie then captained the All Blacks when they regained the Bledisloe Cup off the Wallabies in 1982, but was then affectively banned from playing rugby – which was then an amateur sport – when he was deemed a professional for accepting payment for his autobiography.
Throughout his final two campaigns leading the All Blacks he enjoyed far better treatment from his team-mates to that which future team captain David Kirk had to endure.
Kirk got himself offside with some of the country's biggest names when he refused to tour South Africa with The Cavaliers in 1986 – an unsanctioned side missing only two players selected in the 30-man squad for the 1985 All Black tour of South Africa which was aborted after a court injunction.
Kirk revealed in 2019 the depth of the ill-feeling towards him; including not being protected on the field in the face of oncoming opposition players, and being ostracised off the field to the extent he was left in tears in his hotel room during the 1986 tour of France.
Comparing the contrasting treatment the duo received from respective team-mates who played the Springboks, Mourie said he believed his lengthy track record in national teams – which included the New Zealand Juniors in 1973 – counted for him.
"He was a young Aucklander, an academic, an intellectual," Mourie said of Kirk.
"And . . . he was a back too," he added, tongue in cheek. "Absolutely indefensible."