To celebrate Auckland’s 175th anniversary, its demisemiseptcentennial, the Weekend Herald continues its series celebrating the growth of the city with a look at people and events that shaped Auckland. Today, Suzanne McFadden revisits the 1981 Springboks.

In association with
ASB Tamaki Paenga Hira - Auckland War Memorial Museum

After six weeks of the most caustic mix of sport and politics New Zealand had ever seen, Ron Don, the chairman of the Auckland Rugby Union, offered up an unusual apology.

Auckland was due to play South Africa's Springboks at Eden Park on September 5, 1981, and Don wrote the welcome message in the match programme. Since mid-July, pitched battles had raged up and down the country as police clashed with protesters opposed to the tour because of South Africa's policy of apartheid.

As an out-and-out rugby man, Don was disappointed: for security reasons, he explained, the union could not offer tickets to the general public for the match. But Don's vexation ran even deeper, and he expressed it to the visiting players.

"Auckland Rugby people are disappointed, as no doubt you are, that your stay in our city is so short," wrote Don. "It is indeed sad that a tiny minority of people of people who have nothing to do with our sport have been able to spoil the social side of your tour."


No doubt he was genuine in his sentiment. But his words underlined a staggering naivety at best, wilful blindness at worst, on the part of rugby administrators in 1981.

New Zealand was torn apart by this tour, and dragged to the brink of a civil war. And it was far more than a "tiny minority of people" who were moved to protest.

In 1981 it seemed everyone took a stand. Families were split down the middle - you were either pro-tour or anti-tour, whether you took to the streets or not; and more than 150,000 people did just that, marching in more than 200 demonstrations around the country. A hard core of protesters who came prepared for battle - brandishing softball bats and wearing masks and helmets - stood side-by-side with those of a more peaceful persuasion.

Before the match against Auckland, teacher and former vicar Geoff Walpole dressed as a referee, marched past security on to the field just before kickoff, and snatched the ball away from Springbok first-five Naas Botha. Walpole punted the ball into the stand, challenging chairman Don to "catch that if you can, mate". (The Springboks went on to beat Auckland, 39-12).

But it was not just Don who had underestimated the strength of the anti-tour movement.

A report by the Security Intelligence Service a week before the tour began predicted there wouldn't be too many problems. "None of the groups involved in the anti-tour protest movement, whether groups already of Service interest or otherwise, to our knowledge are planning to use violence or sabotage," said the report, declassified by the SIS in 2011. Though it couldn't completely rule out any violence, the SIS believed the most likely source of trouble was "individuals or small informal groups of people acting on their own initiative".

Marx Jones flies a Cessna low over the All Blacks v Springboks final test match at Eden Park, dropping flour bombs. Photo / NZ Herald
Marx Jones flies a Cessna low over the All Blacks v Springboks final test match at Eden Park, dropping flour bombs. Photo / NZ Herald

Police too were caught short. Police hierarchy considered four plans, with Plan A involving only 195 police and Plan D an extreme option based on releasing all spare staff throughout New Zealand, 12-hour shifts and cancellation of all leave. At the start of the tour they opted for Plan B - just 315 police. But elements of the police were battle-hardened for what was about to unfold. Police files released to the Listener in 2011 show that in June 1981, elite riot police - the notorious Red Squad - had gathered at the Papakura Army base for a pre-tour dress rehearsal against 70 soldiers acting as protesters. What unfolded would be a painful portent: one officer broke a bone in his hand, another injured his back, while a third was struck on the thigh.

By the time of the second planned match - the Waikato game famously abandoned when protesters invaded the pitch - the police had abandoned Plan B, and gone straight to Plan D.


By the time of the final match, the third All Black-Springboks test at Eden Park on September 12, there was absolutely no doubt about the size or the seriousness of the protest movement. A rally of around 6000 met in Fowlds Park that morning before marching to a rugby ground encircled in razor wire.

Though most were peaceful and law-abiding, the riot squad that day faced a barrage of missiles; police files recording "the items thrown ... comprised of rotten eggs, evil smelling unidentified substances, bottles, cans, broken field pipes, volcanic rock, metal bars, wooden palings, incendiary devices (including phosphorus flares), steel bars".

Protesters too bore the brunt, with many feeling the force of the PR24 baton, the martial arts weapon brought into service in 1981.

One of the most violent incidents involved a group of students dressed as clowns. Throughout the day they had handed out flowers and lollies to police and protesters, or staged entertaining mock battles using baguettes, in what they said was a peaceful protest. Towards the end of the day, three were cornered by three policeman who drew out their batons.

"They were vicious, raining blows all over them," an eyewitness, Pekka Paavonpera, told the Herald in 2001. "The girl, she was on the ground and they just kept going." When the attack ended, all the clowns had bruising to their torsos, and the woman was

Anti Springbok tour protesters at Auckland International Airport protesting the arrival of the South African rugby team. Photo / NZ Herald
Anti Springbok tour protesters at Auckland International Airport protesting the arrival of the South African rugby team. Photo / NZ Herald

Despite investigations, the police involved were never identified. Twenty years on, though, one of the clowns (who wanted to remain anonymous) showed remarkable forgiveness, telling the Herald in 2001: "At the time, we all lost faith in the
justice system, but I guess in hindsight we realised that the police were caught between a rock and a hard place. While some of the riot police appeared to want to almost be making the most of their last attempt to enforce law and order, the bulk of them were just doing their job."

Meanwhile, if what was happening outside Eden Park was a series of ground assaults, above was full-on aerial combat. Anti-tour protesters Marx Jones and Grant Cole took the battle to the skies, hiring a Cessna from Auckland's North Shore.

Their mission was almost thwarted when fellow protesters, who had chained themselves to the Auckland Harbour Bridge, blocked the road north. Eventually, after detouring through the west, they made it to Dairy Flat and set off for Eden Park with 100 flour bombs. Throughout the match, they swooped low, bombarding the park and its 49,000 spectators. "But we used paper bags to burst on impact so no one would get hurt," Jones would later say.

He was chased by Air Force helicopters all the way back to the airfield where police were waiting. When Jones disembarked, he saw a familiar face. The arresting officer was a detective, Neil Morris, who played rugby with Jones in a 1966 Rutherford High School team. "C'mon, hop in the car," Morris said, and couldn't help himself a smile. It was a typically Kiwi end to a tumultuous day.

Hours after the final whistle, the wild end of an unruly 56 days, the South African team flew out of Auckland. A divided country began to take stock of what had unfolded.

Looking back, protest leader John Minto, national organiser of Halt All Racist Tours, said he believed the most important impact of the tour was to stimulate debate about racism and the place of Maori in New Zealand. "In South Africa the tour helped to bring, I think, a quicker end to the apartheid regime."

Twenty-five years after the tour, Gregory Fortuin, then Honorary Consul for South Africa in New Zealand, called for any lasting wounds to be finally healed. "I do however believe the time has come to ... close the chapter on any unfinished business," Fortuin said. "To all those New Zealanders who joined hands with us in South Africa, and who campaigned for so long and so effectively we salute you. For your scars we say sorry, for our liberty we say thank you. Together, we were part of one of the great struggles of the 20th century."

Disruptions may have helped

1981 Springbok tour demonstrators go head to head with riot police outside Eden Park. Photo / NZ Herald
1981 Springbok tour demonstrators go head to head with riot police outside Eden Park. Photo / NZ Herald

They were motivated by politics. But protesters who interrupted one of the most infamous rugby tests of all time may well have had an impact on the match too, and had a part to play in the All Blacks' victory.

With play constantly delayed, timekeepers struggled to keep track of how long the Springboks and the All Blacks had to go as they duelled for supremacy in the Eden Park test of 1981.

The third and deciding match of the series had been halted just after half-time, when demonstrators managed to light flares on the field.

And throughout the match, a light plane piloted by Marx Jones had caused chaos, buzzing low over the park and dropping flour bombs. One of the bombs scored a direct hit, striking All Black prop Gary Knight, a first-half hero scoring a valuable try - his only one in the All Black jersey.

"It hit with a decent wallop," Knight recalled of the moment, pictured right. "There was probably a pound of flour in it and it knocked me to the ground. I had a headache afterwards."

He was able to play on and was there when the Springboks drew level with a late, unconverted try.

The 1982 edition of Men In Black described what happened next: "With time up on the clock the crowd resigned itself to a drawn match and series. However, timekeepers had been unable to keep up with all the disruptions in play and the match continued."

Three minutes later, fullback Allan Hewson kicked the most memorable penalty goal of his career, thrusting the All Blacks into a 25-22 lead.

But still play rolled on. Eventually, five minutes after the apparent end of the match, referee Clive Norling called time, and one of the most notorious test series in rugby history was over.

The numbers

The PR24 baton used by riot police during the 1981 Springbok tour protests. Photo / NZ Herald
The PR24 baton used by riot police during the 1981 Springbok tour protests. Photo / NZ Herald


people who marched around the country against the tour

67 people treated at Auckland Hospital after the third test

1500 people charged with tour-related offences

58 low passes made by the Cessna that buzzed Eden Park

2134 police on duty at Eden Park on the day of the third test

60 centimetres, the length of the PR24 baton

7.2 million dollars, the cost of policing the tour

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