A pitch invasion by hundreds of protestors and fears a WWII Spitfire pilot would crash a stolen light plane into Rugby Park led to the cancellation of the 1981 Springboks' match against Waikato. Neil Reid reports on those crazy scenes from 40 years ago – and the shocking violence which was to follow
Battered, bruised and bleeding from a head wound, anti-Bok tour protest leader John Minto looked up at his "crazed" chair leg-wielding attacker and feared the worst.
Just minutes earlier Minto and 11 of his colleagues – who were already in shock after events leading up to and after the cancellation of the Springbok / Waikato clash at Rugby Park - had been trying to settle their nerves with a cup of tea in a suburban Hamilton house.
And some, like Minto, had already been left with bloodied head wounds and other injuries after being set upon by furious rugby fans when the match was abandoned following their pitch invasion, and fears former WWII Spitfire pilot Pat McQuarrie would crash a light plane he had stolen into Rugby Park if the game wasn't cancelled.
The moment of reflection was shattered first by a knock on the home's door, and then several minutes of frenzied violence as two intruders set on inflicting damage on people and property.
"They went absolutely berserk. They smashed the furniture, they were punching and kicking and throwing [people]. It was just a f****** frenzy," Minto told the New Zealand Herald.
"I had my head rammed into the side of a dresser and thrown across the room. It was chaos for maybe only a couple of minutes.
"I found myself lying on the floor, there was a guy standing above me with a broken chair leg in his hand and I looked up at him and thought, Oh f***, I am for it here'. I was literally lying between his legs, he was standing there holding this chair leg and he was looking straight ahead of me . . . his face was white, almost toothpaste white . . . he was in a state of deep, deep shock."
As the 40th anniversary of the infamous day nears, Minto said the man then froze with this "wild kind of crazed look" on his face, before dropping the chair leg and running out of the house.
Minto was then taken to hospital for the second time that day for more repairs on a head cut he suffered earlier after being assaulted by rugby fans outside Rugby Park.
He was then snuck out of the city where violent clashes continued between pro and anti-tour sections.
"I was advised, against my will, that it was stupid for me to stay in Hamilton that night," Minto said. "I got in a car with two or three others and we left via the backstreets of Hamilton after dark."
Prior to the early evening violent home invasion, the property had been used as the location for a press conference where Minto and other HART officials urged the Government to call the tour off.
"We said things were going to get worse and the right thing for the Government to do was step in and call the tour off," Minto said.
"We were all geared up . . . we knew what was going to happen"
While Waikato rugby fans were fizzing with excitement about what they hoped would happen on the field at Hamilton's Rugby Park on the morning of July 25, 120km north activist and future MP Hone Harawira had already set upon a path of causing maximum disruption to those plans.
Three days earlier he had watched TV footage of police and rugby fans pushing back attempts by protestors to gain access to Gisborne's Rugby Park for the tour opener against Poverty Bay.
"We rounded up a crew from Otara, about 10 of us, on and in the back of the ute and went down to Hamilton," he said.
"We were all geared up. We had heavy jackets, heavy jeans, heavy boots and helmets . . . we knew what was going to happen."
While Harawira said some members of the protest movement were intent on passive protest, he was intent on stopping the rugby.
Harawira and his mates were in a protest group led by long-time Māori activist Donna Awatere Huata. As they neared Rugby Park's wire perimeter fence, she gave them the word to "move".
With that, hundreds surged forward, started pulling at the fence and "there we went", said Harawira.
An estimated 300 people sprinted through the efforts of police and rugby fans to hold them back, eventually gathering in a circle in the middle of the field. Some dropped nails, tacks and other sharp objects onto the playing surface.
The brazen pitch invasion initially left the police, rugby fans and the Springbok and Waikato teams in a state of shock.
Springbok captain Wynand Claassen opened up about the drama in The Springbok Opus; the official history of South African test rugby.
"While the police were grappling with those on the field, we rushed back to the change-room where we stood on benches to look out the back window to see what was going on," he said.
"I remember seeing a group of protestors overturn one of those big trailers, and then turning and coming towards the change-room. It took a good few policemen to keep them out."
Team-mate Errol Tobias – the first coloured player to play a test for the Springboks – has spoken of how saddened he was to see the violence.
"It was now a full-scale war with real blood being shed," he wrote in his autobiography, Pure Gold. "For me, it was equally shocking and tragic to see how the Kiwis were fighting each other, how friendships and families were ripped apart . . . "
Standing in the middle of the park, Harawira spotted Tobias looking out at the scenes of police trying to remove protestors from the field and the increasing anger from rugby fans.
"I remember Errol Tobias, coming out from under the stand in the tunnel and I was thinking to myself, 'Bad f****** idea mate. You should have just stayed at home'."
As the plane flown by McQuarrie neared Hamilton, the match was eventually called off.
Minto – who was also in the close-knit huddle of protestors – said it dawned on him that while a lot of planning had gone into what would be required to invade Rugby Park, there had been no consideration about an "exit strategy".
"We had met earlier in the morning and quite a large number of us had no idea there was going to be an attempt to break into the ground," he said.
"One guy ended up on the field carrying his library books. He had gone to the library to change his books and saw the protest on the way back, joined it and ended up on the field."
Police Commissioner Bob Walton spoke to Minto, with the veteran protestor saying he had been told by the country's top police officer "he was worried he couldn't hold the crowds, that we were in danger."
In the minutes – and hours – that ensued, for many protestors, their feelings of joy at the getting the match cancelled was quickly replaced by physical pain after being violently attacked by rugby supporters.
"A lot of people got severely smashed up"
As soon as it was announced over Rugby Park's PA system that the match was off, a chant of 'We want rugby' boomed around the ground. Then followed calls to 'Get the media', with some rugby fans turning on journalists for giving the protest movement increasing coverage.
But the main outlet for the unbridled wrath from footy fans was the protestors themselves.
Full cans of beer were hurled at the pitch invaders as they were led from the field; one which temporarily knocked Minto out. Some fans also jumped over advertising hoardings and punched members of the departing group.
"Walking that gauntlet . . . people were being punched, women were bashed . . . it was pretty horrendous."
Harawira recalled "cans were coming and smashing into people's heads".
"People would run out from the crowd and just smash protestors."
Worse was to follow in the streets around Rugby Park, with both Harawira and Minto claiming some police officers stepped back and let the attacks occur.
"A lot of people got severely smashed up, bleeding and ended up in hospital," Harawira said.
"We had to try and get the Otara crew down the side of the [protest] march just to try and keep everyone away. We would say, 'F*** off, you are not coming in here. They were a bit frightened to come through us, but if they could get through they were smashing poor Pakehas, women and guys just dressed in ordinary day clothes. They got really hammered."
Some rugby supporters ran through private properties to gain easier access to vulnerable members of the protest group.
Pickets were also ripped from fences and used as weapons on some protestors.
Minto's group was set upon by a "baying crowd".
Forty years on, Minto is still moved by the bravery of pensioner Tom Woofe who "opened his door" to him and about 30 people who had been set upon.
In an interview after the infamous day, Woofe – who has since died – described the protestors being chased by a group he likened to "animals" and included some he believed "wanted to kill".
"We just sat on the floor, and everyone kept their head below the window so there was no obvious target," Minto said.
"We were all suffering from shock in varying degrees. There was an angry, angry crowd outside."
An ambulance was called to Woofe's house to get the worst injured protestors to hospital; including Minto who had lost a "huge amount of blood" from a head wound.
"I was the first one out the door, I was being held on either side, and then I heard someone yell, 'There's Minto, let's get him!'.
"Then people started coming over the fence and there was this huge scuffle at the front door. I was turned around and put back into the house."
Given the scenes, the ambulance left. It returned an hour later once the angry crowd had dispersed.
"Anyone who got bashed, they got what they f****** deserved"
The violence in Hamilton continued well into the night of July 25.
Not even the relative sanctuary of a private car saved some anti-tour Kiwis from physical attacks.
"People who had badges on their car, they would stop at the lights and they would be pulled out of their cars and bashed on the main street of Hamilton," Minto said.
The chaplain at Waikato University – who was a prominent member of the anti-tour movement – had his house surrounded by rugby supporters.
"Windows were smashed . . . they were under siege in their house. 111 calls came thick and fast from around the city of people under siege."
But Minto says police didn't respond to many of those, claiming some officers refused to go to the aid of people they viewed were responsible for the outbreak of violent unrest.
Walton also didn't front for a meeting which had been arranged with Father Terry Dibble – another anti-tour leader and someone who made it onto Rugby Park to talk about the day's events.
The claims of not responding to calls were something former senior police officer Ross Meurant – who was second in command of the Red Squad – refused to comment on.
But he did earlier tell the Herald some officers suffered a feeling of "humiliation" after the match cancellation.
HART later made a formal complaint over its allegations of 111 calls not being responded to.
After being investigated by a "special group", Minto said an inspector later told him some officers had "simply refused to move".
"They felt like they had been defeated by the protest movement and there was no way they were going to rescue anyone. [The attitude was] anyone who got bashed, they got what they f****** deserved.
"This was a crisis that Walton was dealing with at the police station. He had a deeply divided police force. It was mass insubordination on behalf the police."