One of the greatest days in my life was the afternoon of the infamous Springbok rugby test in Auckland. I was in 5th form in 1981, and the tour had energised us schoolboys like nothing we had seen. More than Chips even. Nightly news coverage of riot squads and protesters going toe to toe, the religion of rugby being crucified, a feeling that us anti tour types were heroes.
Politics aside, it was fun.
The dullness of Kiwi life amid the eastern bloc vibe of the Muldoon era was electrified by this jolt. Seeing patched gang members in their leathers standing side by side with religious folk in cardies forever killed the narrative of cops being good and the people they were walloping with batons, being scumbags. I could drone on for yonks but '81 has been well covered, and by more proficient hacks than me.
Less so the tour of 1986, when our best rugby players went to South Africa amid worldwide condemnation and local protest. A terrific new doco soon to screen on TVNZ, tells this tale and along the way illuminates the most notorious sporting injury in living memory, the one that involves Wayne "Buck" Shelford and his family jewels. That incident — having a testicle rucked loose in what has become known as the battle of Nantes — is what gives By The Balls its name, but you may be relieved to know it's but a small diversion on this journey. Crossing your legs will be kept to a minimum. Though I did wince.
Directors Charlotte Purdy and Simon Coldrick have brought to life this tumultuous time via a small handful of talking heads, some deliciously choice archive, nicely understated re-enactments and the music of Blam Blam Blam. It's a class act and one that puts the officially sanctioned productions, familiar to viewers of Sky Sport, to shame.
The guts of it is this: In 1985 the NZRU accepted an invitation to tour South Africa. The PM at the time, David Lange, told them not to go, that rugby would be toast if they did. Didn't they learn anything from 1981? Huge protests broke out, the press piled on with a vengeance. The Rugby Union considered the gathering forces and decided to not give a hoot.
It's a class act and one that puts the officially sanctioned productions, familiar to viewers of Sky Sport, to shame
Then came a couple of young lawyers who convinced the supreme court to shut it down. The tour was off!
Undeterred by the semantics of it all, a rebel group, headed by Andy Hayden was formed, calling themselves The Cavaliers. The draw of playing the old opponent and the whiff of cash was intoxicating. In the end, nearly all the All Blacks signed up. David Kirk and John Kirwin demurred. Their story makes up the bulk of the doco. The dissenters and the price they paid.
You could say they get to relive the glory days of the "baby blacks" and take a wee victory lap for being on the right side of history. Representing those who went, a mostly tight-lipped Grant Fox and a more forthcoming Buck Shelford. Neither have regrets.
Remember that this was a good 10 years before the professional era, so back then being caught getting paid to play was verboten. Only a fool would believe the rebels were not paid handsomely, but lips remain tight. The most telling moment is when the players are asked that exact question. All these years later it still freezes grown men in their tracks.
Foxy and Buck dodge the tackle. John Kirwin tells us that he was not only offered cash but they offered to double it when he refused. David Kirk, the young upstart who would soon become the first captain to hold aloft the world cup, is more direct and almost relishes spilling the beans: $100k was put on his table before he pushed it away. A hundy grand! Enough to buy several houses or maybe a dozen in Bluff at the time. Kirk says he knew he made the right call when he saw footage of the rebel players on their way to South Africa, transiting through Australia, dressed in civis, heads bowed, badgered by the press, they could have been crims on a perp walk. But for Buck, the chance to play in South Africa, despite the racist regime, was too much to turn down, even for a brown guy.
To its credit, By The Balls, manages to celebrate the quiet heroism of Kirk and Kirwin without banishing the Cavaliers, merely sending them to the naughty step of history.
It takes what many of us assumed to be a black-and-white tale and celebrates the richness to be found among the many shades of grey.