The All Blacks ventured behind the Iron Curtain for the only time 40 years ago. Several players ended up having soldiers' guns "shoved" in their faces, some feared their smoking plane would crash, and the communist regime censored letters home, as well as providing an interpreter who the All Blacks believed was a spy. Neil Reid reports
As the All Blacks flew over Romania, rookie back Arthur Stone feared his first tour with the team would end in tragedy.
In late 1981, Stone and his 25 team-mates ventured behind the Iron Curtain to play Romania - at the time one of several European nations ruled by unforgiving communist regimes.
During the two-game stay, the luxuries of home were swapped for a brutal environment where basic food items were rationed and the players' every move was monitored.
Forty years on, team members have also spoken of their fears of crashing during an internal flight after the cabin smelled of smoke during take-off – with Stone saying smoke later appeared to be coming from the engines in flight.
"We weren't sure if we were going to make it," he told the Herald on Sunday.
"They were interesting times . . . It was about a two-hour flight and was smoking a while of the way."
Fellow first-time All Black Andrew Donald – a farmer and star of the Wanganui provincial team – jokingly recalled the charter plane was like a "top dresser" plane.
But it was no laughing matter when smoke "started to fill the cabin".
"There was a funny smell and we thought, 'Well that isn't the food burning'. It was quite scary," he recalled.
"It was bloody good to get out on the ground."
Fullback Allan Hewson – fresh from his recent heroics in the deciding test against the Springboks – said the Russian plane "looked like it was built in 1903".
"You had to tie yourself [into the seats] . . . " he said.
"We only flew about 2000 feet the whole way we were going, and it was scary . . . I can assure you of that."
Captain Graham Mourie said while the smell of smoke was disheartening, the biggest issue for him was that many of the seatbelts didn't work.
"Some of the guys had to tie their seatbelts by using reef knots," he laughed.
Mid Canterbury loose forward Jock Ross – who at 2.03m is one of the tallest ever All Blacks – said halfback Dave Loveridge was those most unsettled by the flight.
"Trapper was a nervous flier at the best of times. But on that flight, he literally had to be tied to his seat," Ross said.
"We knew the signs were ominous when John Spiers fell through the gangway up to the plane as we were getting on board."
The All Blacks toured Romania and France in late 1981 after a tumultuous season in New Zealand sparked by the Springboks' presence here; a 53-day visit that saw violent civil unrest erupt around match venues and at other protest sites around the country.
Throughout the three-test series, the All Blacks were protected by crack units of newly-formed police riot squads.
That level of security was foreign to the All Blacks at the time. But it was nothing compared to what awaited them in Romania - an Eastern Bloc nation ruled by uncompromising dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
"It scared the bejesus out of you!"
The All Blacks have been granted many regal and cultural welcomes during their 118-year history of playing international rugby.
None would be as surreal as what awaited them as their plane taxied on landing in Romania.
"When we, landed we were surrounded by troops," said Northland prop Wayne Neville, who was on his first and only All Black tour.
"There were troops running around, anti-aircraft guns, tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
"Wherever you went there were these kids [who were soldiers], and they were just kids, armed to the teeth with machineguns and grenades hanging off of them."
Ross said it wasn't just the strong military presence that struck him. He was also stunned at the young ages of some of the heavily armed troops.
"These poor young fellas standing on the side of the road at the pillboxes with machineguns were only kids," he said.
None of the All Blacks spoken to by the Herald on Sunday said they had been given any pre-warning of what they might encounter in Romania.
Donald – who, given his location in the central North Island, was used to seeing troop movement around the Waiouru army base – said the sight of army might was jarring.
"What we learnt when we landed was the military presence," he said.
"It was like being in Waiouru, but this wasn't an exercise. It scared the bejesus out of you."
Hewson also was shocked by the sight of "people in the streets with automatic rifles everywhere you went."
He said it was also evident from early on in their stay in Romania that the team was being watched.
That included an elderly woman assigned to the team as an interpreter – whose English skills were questionable - whom players firmly believe was a spy.
"We had an 80-odd-year-old communist lady in the team all the time," he said.
"The lady would keep an eye on the mail and make sure we were doing everything right."
Mourie said it was obvious the woman was with the team from a "security aspect, rather than as a team aspect".
"She kept an eye on what was going on," he said.
Added Neville: "Everything that happened, she knew about it."
Ross said it wasn't just the so-called interpreter who kept a close eye on the All Blacks. He also recalls a group of men who appeared on a chartered flight for the team.
"Aside from us, there were six guys at the back of the plane, all wearing black hats, who were observing us," he said.
"There's a fly in my soup"
Romania certainly isn't remembered as the land of culinary delights by the path-finding All Blacks.
Responses such as "crap", "s***" and "diabolical" are offered up from players who still cringe at some of the meals they were served
Gastro issues were endured by many of the players – with food believed to be the cause of a raft of issues.
Hewson revealed star wings Bernie Fraser and Stu Wilson instead opted for a diet of fruit and wine for the duration of their stay in Romania.
"[And] they were the only ones who never got crook," he said.
Hewson remembers the food offerings as "diabolical".
One meal he partially ate sticks in his mind 40 years on for an unexpected ingredient.
"We had some soup and I found a blowfly halfway down. It was bloody terrible," Hewson said.
The lack of variety of meals served up throughout the stay in Romania wasn't down to a lack of imagination from the local chefs.
As in other nations behind the Iron Curtain, most foreign visitors – just like the weary locals – had to endure food rations.
"It was a terrible state of affairs," Ross said.
"We found out later that the crops had failed in Russia, and Russia was sucking all the grain out of Romania.
"It sure wasn't Ashburton. I was used to that way of life and eating a nice roast lamb from the Canterbury Plains, not what awaited us in Romania."
Food shortages meant what Kiwis refer to as basic staples such as bread, butter, milk and eggs weren't available each day at the hotels hosting the All Blacks.
And when eggs were on the menu, they were not always the safest of options.
"I remember going to breakfast with [prop] Rod Ketels and he was eating an egg, I am not too sure what sort of egg it was," Hewson said.
"He ended up sprinting through the door and spewing in the front of the hotel."
Donald said concerns over egg-based dishes also saw the team's liaison officer – former Romanian captain Alexandru Pop – issue a dietary warning to the All Blacks.
"We were at breakfast one morning and someone ordered scrambled eggs, Donald said. "Our liaison guy said, 'Don't do that . . . you won't be sure what is mixed in there. If you want eggs, make sure it is poached or fried'."
Long-time All Blacks physiotherapist Malcolm Hood was another left less than impressed with most of the meals.
But he later realised the All Blacks were enjoying some of the best food on offer.
"Everybody got a rating in Romania. They were given a star . . . reporters probably would have been one star and All Blacks were five stars," Hood said.
"According to what rating you got, was the allowances you [got]. We got a contract that said this is how much meat we could have every day, this is how much sugar we could have every day, this is what level of eating it was.
"The food we ate was really low, low quality. The first meal of meat that we had was horse meat. And virtually nobody could eat it . . . the smell of it, it definitely wasn't a young horse."
One of the few All Blacks to enjoy some taste sensations in Romania was Mourie.
The captain, along with coach Peter Burke, dined out at a formal welcoming dinner hosted by the then Romanian minister of sport where everyone was, he said, "very well fed".
"But I don't think too many of the other boys saw too much meat during the tour," Mourie joked.
Quality food was one of the All Blacks' first priorities when they arrived in France for the next leg of the European tour
Steak houses, bistros and a McDonald's outlet did great trade from the tourists.
"In France, once you sat down at the restaurant table there was definitely relief," said Neville, who was a farmer.
"Some of the boys lost quite a bit of weight over in Romania. To be honest, the food was crap . . . [even] the butter smelled off."
Few expressed as much relief at being in France as 73kg Hewson, who lost more than 4kg after contracting a stomach bug before the All Blacks' departure, and then enduring the Romanian food.
"I think I had eggs benedict and it was the best meal I had had for over a week," he said. "It was a tough week."
"We soon found out that there were no jokes allowed in Romania"
Forty years on, and for many of the All Blacks, their sole reminders of the historic two-match tour to Romania are limited to what has stuck in their minds.
Players and officials on that tour don't possess photo albums overflowing with pictures.
Early on, given the iron-fist rule in Romania, the All Blacks found out that the simple act of taking a photo could be a serious health and safety issue.
"We were constantly watched and taking photos was a no-go," Ross said.
"While we were waiting for a plane at Constata, Hika Reid pretended to take a photo. And they [armed soldiers] just came from everywhere.
"They dragged him outside and our liaison officer, Alexandru Pop, went out and they managed to persuade the authorities that it was only a joke. But we soon found out that there were no jokes allowed in Romania.
"Hika was told pretty clearly that it wasn't the best of ideas."
Legendary All Black lock Andy Haden also ran foul of soldiers when trying to take photos in public.
While photos are few and far between, some families of All Black tour members do still have more unique souvenirs of the tour.
Letters sent back to loved ones were intercepted by Romanian government censors, and any contents deemed critical of the regime were removed.
One letter written by an All Black was totally removed. Instead, when the player's family opened the envelope, all they found was a small Romanian flag added by the censors.
Hewson added the censorship was a further "education" on how the hardline socialist nation was run.
"Every piece of mail was gone through before it was sent home."
Ceausescu's hardline regime was overthrown in a bloody revolution in 1989. Both he and his wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad.
Rugby took Hewson around the world during his tenure in the All Blacks between 1979-84. And 40 years on from the two-match trip to Romania, he said "without a doubt" that nation was the worst he had ever visited.
"I didn't really want to go back, put it that way," he said. "It was like going to prison for a week.
"It was all just . . . so disturbing. We just wanted to get out of the place."