By WYNNE GRAY
Well after the All Blacks all but parcelled up the Tri-Nations series, the buzz around Kings Park in Durban was about the on-field assault of Irish referee David McHugh.
No other topic got lengthy discussion. Wherever you moved, there were questions about his health, ground security, the reaction of the players in the unprecedented disgrace and unanimous condemnation.
It was evil and cowardly. It had been a frightening glimpse at what might have been if the assailant had been carrying a knife like the fan who attacked tennis player Monica Seles.
Replacement touch judge Jonathan Kaplan was aghast, recalling the time he was pelted with bottles in Wellington, the attack on George Gregan at Rotorua, Deon Kayser being tackled at Ballymore and the streakers who interrupted last week's Bledisloe Cup clash.
In attacks on referees, it was worse than that by French captain Daniel Dubroca, who shoved and remonstrated with New Zealand referee Dave Bishop in the tunnel during the 1991 World Cup.
McHugh, a Cork greengrocer who equalled the Irish record in controlling his 23rd test, was taken from the ground with a dislocated left shoulder after a burly Springbok supporter grappled with him.
After some painkillers, and having his shoulder put back in, McHugh made it back to the referees' room soon after the game finished.
But he looked very shaken as Springbok doctor Uli Schmidt warned he should be closely watched for a few hours.
Within an hour McHugh fainted in the dressing room and All Black doctor John Mayhew was summoned to provide further assistance. McHugh was then taken back to his hotel for observation.
There had been All Black concerns before the test that McHugh might have been swayed by his week staying in the Springbok hotel.
But by halftime there was just green fury in the 52,000 crowd who had been incensed by a variety of McHugh's rulings.
One delivered a penalty try to the All Blacks, another disallowed, for obstruction, what appeared to be a legitimate Springbok try to Breyton Paulse, and he also refused to let de Wet Barry go to the sideline for a bloodbin substitution.
The halftime hubbub had only just eased when chaos occurred.
As McHugh set a scrum in the All Black 22, the intruder made his move. He ran on to the ground, round the side of the scrum past All Black flanker Richard McCaw, and collared McHugh, wrenching his shoulder.
"I was sort of bumped into by the ref and then saw what was happening," McCaw said later. "No one should be put at risk like that and he [the assailant] got what he deserved."
As players from both sides dragged the attacker away and pinned him down, Springbok lock A. J. Venter hit him several times in the face.
"We as South Africans are very much embarrassed by the whole situation," he said. "We don't promote that kind of thing. The only thing I saw was him tackling the ref. I had my head in the scrum and at the end of the day I protected the ref."
All Black No 8 Scott Robertson added: "It was the most bizarre thing I have seen in a game. Our first reaction was to help the ref."
The test was halted for seven minutes as McHugh was taken from the field on a mobile stretcher, English touch judge Chris White was wired up as the replacement to control the match, and Kaplan brought from the bench to run touch.
The All Blacks felt the delay helped the Springboks, even though the scores were level at 17-17.
"We had wanted to keep the tempo up, but this gave them an extra rest in what had been a very fast game in the heat," Robertson said.
The Boks reasserted themselves, using their small men such as Breyton Paulse, Andre Pretorius and Brent Russell in a number of counter-attacks which stretched the All Black defence.
Several more marginal calls went against the home side in the All Black 22, decisions which soon had the crowd as furious with White as they had been with McHugh.
There was a further unchecked invasion from a Bok supporter who ran between the Springbok posts and planted a South African flag, an act which brought no response from security forces or police.
After repelling the Bok thrusts, the All Blacks returned the fire, with McCaw denied a try from a driving maul in the corner where James Dalton was awarded his contentious try to beat the visitors four years ago.
But from subsequent quick phase play, Aaron Mauger was set free with an overlap, his pace too much for a covering Bok forward, giving the All Blacks the lead and the bonus point they had come for. Andrew Mehrtens converted.
"It was a bit of a mismatch for me, there were some big frames out wide," Mauger suggested in downplaying his effort.
Round all this drama, the ground clock was doing its own thing.
With it still showing nine minutes left, Pretorius opted for a shot at goal. As stand-in skipper Bob Skinstad queried the time left, the clock suddenly altered to show four minutes remaining, a change confirmed by White to Skinstad's obvious disgust.
"We were holding on," McCaw revealed. "It is the most poked I have been in a game."
The kick missed and soon after when the hooter sounded, replacement halfback Byron Kelleher slammed a punt into touch, leaving the All Blacks 30-23 victors and favourites to take the Tri-Nations unless the Wallabies pull off a win by 26 points or more, with at least four tries for the bonus point, this weekend at Ellis Park.
It had been a courageous comeback on a most dramatic afternoon.
The All Blacks started badly again, conceding a first-minute try to Neil de Kock, but using the width of the ground they exposed some Bok defensive alignments, gathering three first-half tries and their confidence.
The win did not arrive until very late, but after the Bledisloe Cup anguish last week, they got the rub of the green to go a long way towards replenishing the NZRFU trophy cabinet.
All Blacks test schedule/scoreboard
By WYNNE GRAY