1981 Springbok Tour

From Academic Kids

The 1981 Springbok Tour was a controversial tour of New Zealand by the South African Springbok rugby team.


The Springboks and New Zealand's equivalent national rugby team, the All Blacks, have a long tradition of intense and friendly sporting rivalry. In the 1950s and 1960s, the South African apartheid policies had an impact on team selection for the All Blacks: the selectors passed over Maori players for some All Black tours to South Africa. By the 1970s public protests and political pressure forced on the New Zealand Rugby Union the choice of either fielding a team not selected by race, or not touring in the Republic. However, the South African rugby authorities continued to select Springbok players by race. As a result, the Norman Kirk Labour Government of 1972 - 1974 prevented the Springboks from touring during the mid 1970s. In response, the Rugby Union protested about the involvement of "politics in sport".

In 1976, the then newly-elected New Zealand prime minister, Robert Muldoon, allowed the All Blacks to tour South Africa. Twenty-one African nations protested against this breach of the Gleneagles Agreement by boycotting the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, due to their view that the All Black tour gave tacit support to the apartheid régime in South Africa. Once again the All Blacks failed to win a series in South Africa (they would not do so until 1996, after the fall of apartheid).

The Tour

By the early 1980s the pressure from other African countries as well as from protest groups internal to New Zealand, such as HART (Halt All Racist Tours), reached a head when the New Zealand Rugby Union proposed a Springbok Tour for 1981. This became a topic of political contention due to the issue of the sports boycott by the other African nations. Activists asked New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to cancel the tour, but he permitted the South African team to come to New Zealand in mid-1981, arguing that New Zealand was a free and democratic country, and that "politics should stay out of sport". Muldoon's critics, however, felt that Muldoon really wished the tour to go ahead was that Muldoon in order for his National Party to secure the votes of rural and provincial conservatives in the general election later in the year.

The ensuing public protests polarised the New Zealand population as no other issue has in the nation's history. While rugby fans filled the football grounds, sizeable protest crowds filled the surrounding streets. The New Zealand authorities strengthened security at public facilities after protestors disrupted telecommunications services by taking out a TV microwave station. The Police, who had created two special riot squads (the Red and Blue Squads), to control protestors, also required that all spectators assemble in sports grounds at least an hour before kickoff, after protestors surrounded grounds and attempted to invade pitches early in the tour. At Rugby Park, Hamilton about fifty protestors invaded the pitch after pulling down a fence, causing the game to be cancelled and leading to enraged rugby spectators lashing out at the protestors. A bloody encounter took place between protest marchers and police in Molesworth Street in Wellington. And at Eden Park, Auckland, a low-flying light plane disrupted the final game of the tour by dropping flour-bombs on the pitch. The scenes that appeared on television made the country look on the brink of civil war as the evening news broadcasts replayed running battles between helmet-clad protestors, the police and enraged rugby fans.


For the first time in history, rugby in New Zealand had become a source of embarrassment rather than pride. The sport fell into a six-year decline, arrested only by the country's victory in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987.

The national trauma of the 1981 Springbok tour in New Zealand meant that the All Blacks did not tour South Africa until after fall of the apartheid régime (1990 - 1994), although an unofficial tour in 1986 by a team of All Blacks players known as the Cavaliers did take place. Also many African countries boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Public respect for the police also took a battering as a result of The Tour, with protestors filing a number of high-profile brutality complaints against officers. Many felt that the authorities had set up the Red and Blue Squads for the purpose of suppressing dissent, as opposed to for by-the-book law enforcement.

Merata Mita's documentary film Patu! tells the tale of the tour. In 1984 Geoff Chapple published "The Tour", a book chronicling the above events.


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