Nelson Mandela is coming to Eden Park. If you've been to an event there anytime since early February you'll know this, because they've been promoting the big new exhibition of his life quite heavily.

Although not so much during the Blues-Stormers game on Saturday. Did they decide the fans of the Cape Town team were not a target market for a Mandela retrospective?

Even though Mandela was practically one of their own, having lived just a few kilometres away, in the prison on Robben Island, for so many years?

It's odd, staging the Mandela exhibition at Eden Park, because rugby was the pre-eminent symbol of the apartheid regime he fought so hard to bring down. The streets around the park saw the bitterest clashes between protesters and police during the Springbok Tour in 1981.


"Will the Mandela exhibition include a commemorative flour bombing?" asked someone on Twitter, referring to Marx Jones' escapade in a small plane over the park the day of the final test.

Jones went to jail for that. But within 10 years apartheid had fallen, Mandela had been released from prison and was on his way to becoming South Africa's first black President, and rugby was, well, rugby was still coming to terms with it.

In 1986, with the flour still sticking to their faces, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union tried to organise an All Blacks tour to South Africa.

But a court found it would be "incompatible" with the NZRFU's purpose — to foster and encourage the spirit of rugby — so they had to cancel.

A renegade team called the Cavaliers went anyway, with Colin Meads as coach and Andy Dalton captain. Of the 30 players originally selected for the All Blacks tour, only John Kirwan and David Kirk refused to join what I'd call nothing but a display of support for apartheid.

I thought then Eden Park was the last bastion of pro-apartheid sentiment in this country. Does that make it the wrong place for an exhibition commemorating the life of Nelson Mandela now?

Maybe it's exactly the right place. The man himself probably would have thought so.

In 1995 South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup and Mandela, by then President, used the occasion as a symbol of his newly unified country. Before the final, between New Zealand and South Africa, he wore a Springbok jersey on to the field to greet the teams.


Frank Bunce was there. The All Blacks centre that day says he remembers "the atmosphere was already crazy, more than electric, but when Mandela walked out, all of a sudden there was a huge swelling, everything just rose".

He's seen the photo of Mandela shaking his hand, holding his arm with the other hand, a real gesture of friendship, and he knows Mandela spoke to him. But he can't remember what he said. He can't even remember that Mandela was wearing the Springbok jersey.

He's talked to other All Blacks from that day. "None of us could remember," he says. It was too big.

Back in 1981, Bunce was a kid. "I was on the side of the rugby, to be honest." But, he said, "We did the wrong thing. I have the utmost respect for the John Mintos of this world. For Hart [Halt All Racist Tours]." Mandela, he said, had "changed the path of my life".

At the media launch of the exhibition, nobody from the Rugby Union or Eden Park said anything like that. The official opening is April 11 and that would be a good time for them to do it.

Truth and reconciliation, if you remember, were the watchwords in Mandela's South Africa.

It's the real deal, this exhibition, put together by curators from Museums Victoria with the support of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. There are photos and film, documents, artworks, recordings and personal items. Mandela's famous speech in court, defending a charge of treason, is featured. Doors open to the public on April 13.

Will the Stormers fans come? After the game on Saturday, they might not want to return to the park for any reason. For 30 minutes the two teams played the most boring rugby imaginable, with the Stormers kicking penalties. Then Blues tyro wing Tanielu Tele'a sprinted onto a pass inside his own half, fended off about 47 opposing players with a straight-arm shove that said get out of my way doofus, sped across the line and scored. The crowd was in an uproar. The conversion by Otere Black was good and suddenly the score was 7-6.

Big Ma'a Nonu burst into life with a powerful break, Tele'a got the ball again, in much the same spot, and it was all on for him again, except it wasn't because half the Stormers piled on top of him. Just to be sure. No worries, the ball skidded along the line the other way to Rieko Ioane, and there was no doubt at all he would score. Except he got hauled down on the line and lost the damn thing.

This is all inside three minutes of rugby.

On it went. The great Northland flanker Tom Robinson had a go, his flowing red hair bathing his head in a fiery crucible of magnificence. Nonu threw a pass half the width of the field, perfect for Ioane to run on to, but he got caught. Some days it's like he can't decide to run around or step inside, and ends up doing neither, and this was one of those days.

The rest of the team, though. Paddy Tuipulotu rushed around monstering everybody, halfback Jonathan Ruru was busy as all hell, TJ Faiane the same at centre.

As for the Stormers, it looked like they'd left their lungs at home. Players kept stopping, not lying on their backs in the approved manner when you're injured, but just sitting down. They did it many times. They seemed not only winded but confused. The Blues are beating us? What?

Sometimes the Blues tried to help them. They gave away four kickable penalties. Hooker James Parsons threw the ball right over the lineout into open space four times. Passes went nowhere.

Still, Otere Black's kicks went over and the tries mounted, and at every stoppage another Stormer sat down.

Eventually Rieko scored, well he had to, and as he jogged back to the start line, dodging Stormers having a wee sit down, he blew a kiss at the subs' bench. Or was it at the crowd? Hard to tell with these superstars. Perhaps it was at the universe.

Final score 24-9: three wins in a row and this one the best yet. Afterwards, the fans crowding on to the field with the players for autographs and selfies, there's Sonny Bill and prop Karl Tu'inukuafe, each with a small child crooked in his arms.

Rugby's definitely changed now. The dinosaurs who ran the game in the 1980s probably wouldn't approve, but you gotta figure Nelson Mandela would.