Grudging respect mutual for bitter enemies, writes Andrew Austin.

Legendary Springbok rugby player Boy Louw summed it up best: "When South Africa plays New Zealand, consider your country at war".

The relationship, which spans nearly a century from the first test in 1921, is certainly not a warm one; it never has been. In fact, hatred is a better word.

But deep down, where tough rugby men don't often go, there is a grudging acknowledgment of the strength of the other country.

Louw's words, spoken just before the first test in 1949, were not said lightly. He had just returned from World War II where, as a bombardier, he had fought alongside Kiwis. His comment also came ahead of an acrimonious series in South Africa - a 4-0 whitewash to the Springboks.

While All Black-Springbok encounters had always been fierce, the 1949 series was particularly nasty, setting the tone for years to come.

The Springboks won the series through the brilliant goalkicking of their prop Okey Geffin, even though, as on many future occasions, they scored fewer tries than their opponents.

This was also the first time the All Blacks complained of home town refereeing decisions - those were the days before neutral referees. It would become a common complaint over the years, with All Black teams coming home grumbling about having to play against 16 men.

The refereeing storm reached a crescendo during the 1976 tournament, with the All Blacks convinced that local referees were blatantly cheating. In the tour match against Northern Transvaal, local flanker Thys Lourens pointed out to referee Piet Robbertse that the All Blacks had too many players in a short lineout. Robbertse penalised New Zealand and Northern Transvaal kicked the penalty to win 29-27. What incensed the All Blacks was that Lourens, in the polite Afrikaans way, had called the referee Oom (Uncle). The All Blacks also believed the final penalty in the final test was unfair but it gave the Springboks their one-point victory and the series.

All Black coach JJ Stewart summed up the tour: "We outplayed South Africa. South Africa outkicked us. Goodbye rugby."

The Springboks have also complained of cheating by New Zealand teams.

In 1970, the villain for South African fans was New Zealand fullback Fergie McCormick, who was allegedly the cause of Springbok hooker Piston van Wyk leaving the field in the second test with blood streaming from his head. Later in the game, McCormick was in the centre of things again, when he swung an elbow into the face of Springbok centre Syd Nomis after he kicked ahead during a counterattack. McCormick is alleged to have told journalist Terry McLean that the act had been deliberate.

Bok centre John Gainsford reportedly said: "When you come to us, we cheat you and beat you. And when we go to you, you cheat us and beat us."

All that aside, both countries knew they had to beat the other to take the title of world's best.

Joel Stransky, the first five eighth who broke New Zealand hearts when he slotted the extra time field goal to give the Springboks the 1995 Rugby World Cup, says the rivalry goes beyond a traditional one.

"We South Africans grow up wanting to wear the green and gold and play against the All Blacks. It is part of our rugby DNA. The history is just so strong and we want to judge ourselves against the arch enemy and the best."

Stransky grew up during the apartheid era and therefore did not have many chances to watch the Springboks take on their main rivals. The 1976 series, when he was just 9 years old, stands out; although it did not produce the best rugby, it produced heroes.

"I remember clearly how great Bryan Williams was! I wanted to play wing because of Bryan but that passed when I never got the ball on the wing!"

Stransky, who went on to play 23 tests for the Springboks between 1993 and 1996, experienced exactly how tough a test against the All Blacks was. He has "huge respect" for players he played against like Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke "and of course Merhts" (Andrew Merhtens, his opposite number in the 1995 final).

He says Zinny was the toughest.

"Big and powerful. Difficult to tackle when he came off the back. And he kicked an international goal."

As for Stransky's favourite matches against the All Blacks?

"It hurts to say this but aside from the World Cup final, I have only disappointing memories. We lost a home series for the first time." (NZ won the 1996 series.)

Politics has always coursed through sporting contact between the two countries. For years New Zealand struggled with wanting to play the mighty Springboks but not wanting to support apartheid.

In turn, the architects of apartheid put huge strains on the relationship by trying to dictate who could represent the All Blacks against the Springboks.

By refusing to accept Maori players on tours to South Africa, the Government and rugby board set the relationship on a course for destruction. The 1967 All Black tour to South Africa was cancelled because Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd said no Maori players would be permitted to tour. This time New Zealand stood firm and said: No Maori, no tour.

The pressure built over the next decade and finally came to a head when the Springboks undertook an ill-fated tour of New Zealand in 1981. It was the tour that never should have happened and it nearly tore New Zealand apart. Everywhere the Springboks went they were met by protests.

The rugby was typically brutal with the All Blacks squeaking to a 2-1 series win, which was not without controversy. To this day, Springbok supporters are adamant Welsh referee Clive "Show Pony" Norling should not have awarded a penalty which resulted in All Black fullblack Alan Hewson slotting the winning penalty in the final test at Eden Park. This was the last time the All Blacks and Springboks would face each other in official tests until South Africa returned from sporting isolation in 1992.

The Cavaliers, basically the All Blacks minus David Kirk and John Kirwan, toured in 1986 and although South African fans took it seriously, it was not the same. Once again the series, which South Africa won, was marred by foul play when Northern Transvaal flanker Burger Geldenhuys punched Cavaliers captain Andy Dalton from behind, ending his tour.

When the Springboks resumed full international contact in 1992, the years of isolation showed. Their ponderous style did not have any place in the modern game. Although they adapted enough to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, they remained less of a threat to New Zealand than in previous years. A new threat, namely Australia, had emerged but for diehard All Blacks fans of a certain generation it was not the same - the old enemy wore green and gold not just gold.

The 1996 series victory in South Africa was still a big deal for the All Blacks. Sean Fitzpatrick, who was unlucky not to have lifted the world cup trophy the previous year, could finally go down in history as the first captain to win a series in South Africa.

As for this year, who knows what it will bring. Hopefully the great rivals of the game will meet in the semifinals. But whatever the result, expect passion, aggression and quite possibly a large dollop of controversy.

•Andrew Austin is the Herald's chief reporter.

Other rivalries:
Australia: Magic clashes between determined siblings
Wales: A history of obsession
France: Fear pushes French to unexpected wins