Napier's McLean Park, soon to be opened again to the delight of many sports fans, has had an interesting history, and produced a number of firsts for sport in this country.

One of them was the first time the South African rugby team – or Springboks - played a New Zealand Maori team, which occurred on September 7, 1921.

Six thousand spectators eagerly filed into McLean Park to watch the game. It was hard-fought, with the Springboks just securing a victory at 9 points to 8.

Days after the match, it was reported in The Daily Telegraph that a South African newspaper reporter, C W E Blackett, had sent a controversial cable home.


It read: "This was the most unfortunate match ever played … bad enough having to play team officially designated New Zealand Natives. Spectacle thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on band of coloured men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly, disgusted. The Maoris flung their weight about regardless of the niceties of the game."

Three postal workers who had intercepted and leaked the press cable were sacked.

The Springbok manager, Harold Bennett, quickly denied any involvement in the cable and claimed "the whole of my team and officials are very much hurt, because the Maoris have been particularly hospitable towards us. They were certainly not guilty of any dirty play, and we have certainly not been a party to hurting their feelings in any way."

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When correspondent Blackett admitted responsibility for the cable, he said he was surprised at the Springbok manager's apology on his behalf.

New Zealand Maori would play the Springboks again at McLean Park on August 25, 1981 – the fourth time they had met.

Protests about South Africa's apartheid regime, one could say, led to the closest New Zealand has come to a civil war in the 20th century during the 1981 Springbok tour, with many for and against the tour.

Police in riot gear and violent struggles in streets had been something New Zealanders had watched others on television do overseas, rather than experienced here. In many cases families were split over the tour taking place.


Like other grounds around New Zealand, outside McLean Park was also a protest scene. Barbed wire was laid around the field, and on the Morris St footpath. Jumbo bins were filled with water and sandbags used as roadblocks.

Outside McLean Park, Percy Bush, the uncle of New Zealand Maori captain Billy Bush, addressed protesters in both Maori and English, saying he had come to see his adopted son play the Springboks, but expressed opposition to apartheid.

Billy Bush was said to be annoyed, and that he had not seen his Uncle Percy, who had claimed to be a second father, since 1976.

"He's my uncle and I respect the guy but I was a bit upset."

A police force of 1000 was in attendance around Napier. Four hundred protesters were halted in Latham St at 1.28pm, about 300 metres from the McLean park entrance.

At kick-off time the protesters split into two groups and played cat-and-mouse with police, who moved around following them in buses armed with helmets and batons.

When the match finished, the protesters dispersed after being advised by the organisers to avoid confrontations with rugby supporters.

Police said there were "no incidents of great note" and no demonstrations inside the park.

The Springboks' visit to Napier was said to be the least disrupted game so far on the tour, and it was drawn 12-all.

• Coming soon, Historic Hawke's Bay by Michael Fowler. A collection of his best articles 2016-2018. Email for pre-order information.

• Michael Fowler ( is a chartered accountant and contract researcher of Hawke's Bay's history.