From The Vaults

22 August 2022
The Resumption of Hostilities: South Africa v New Zealand, 15 August 1992

The 14-match Springbok tour of New Zealand in 1981 remains among the most contentious rugby tours ever undertaken. Its social and political ramifications were immense and long-lasting, and yet the rugby played in the three-test series won by the All Blacks through an Allan Hewson penalty goal in injury time in the third 'flour-bomb' test was always compelling. In retrospect, the 1981 series stands as a pivotal point in the long history of more than 100 rugby internationals played between these two great rugby nations from 1921 to the present day.

It was thought likely at the end of that historic day at Eden Park that there might never be another test series between the Boks and the All Blacks. But circumstances changed and South Africa was eventually re-admitted to international rugby in 1992 after years of isolation. This followed the release of future president Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 and the acceptance of proposed changes to the South African political system. The All Blacks had last undertaken an official full tour of South Africa in 1976, but a rebel New Zealand Cavaliers team had toured the Republic ten years later and lost a four-test series.

The All Blacks arrived in South Africa in July 1992 to play five matches including a test match at Ellis Park Johannesburg. Although they did win their four warm-up matches against Natal, Orange Free State, the Junior Springboks and Central Unions, their form over the season had been mixed. They had won a two-match series against Ireland but then lost a close three-match series against Australia. However, their test team under the captaincy of hooker Sean Fitzpatrick was highly experienced with such luminaries as John Kirwan on the wing, Grant Fox at fly half, Ian Jones in the second row and an imposing back row of Michael Jones, Jamie Joseph and Zinzan Brooke. Grant Fox had also gained valuable experience of South African conditions as he had been one of the youngest members of the Cavaliers squad six years earlier.

For the South African supporters, the outlook for their team was much less certain. Following that infamous test series in 1981, only 13 test matches had been played by the Springboks against a variety of teams including the USA in 1981, South America in 1982 and 1984, the New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986 and a World XV in 1989.

Two players remained from the 1981 series eleven years earlier, the great centre Danie Gerber and the prodigious goal-kicking fly half and captain Naas Botha. Both players are still regarded amongst the finest players in their positions in Springbok history. The remaining backs were all new caps and the selectors added three more new caps in the forwards alongside the dynamic Uli Schmidt at hooker, the lanky Adolf Malan in the second row and the gritty experience of Wahl Bartmann and former captain Jannie Breedt in the back row.

The mood of the crowd was supportive but fractious and the lack of recent match experience at the highest level told on the Springboks during the first half. Their talisman kicker Naas Botha showed patchy form and at half-time the Springboks were down 10-0 through a try from a tap penalty by Zinzan Brooke and a conversion and penalty goal from Grant Fox.

Although Botha kicked a penalty goal after four minutes of the second half, he missed two further kicks at goal. A sweeping John Kirwan try from a poor clearance was converted and quickly followed by a second penalty goal from Grant Fox to give the All Blacks a substantial lead of 20 points to 3. Danie Gerber showed his class in cutting through to score a fine try which Botha converted but John Timu, the All Blacks full black, scored their third try and with Fox again converting, the All Blacks appeared out of sight with a 27-10 lead and twenty minutes remaining.

The Springboks threw caution to the wings and fought back with immense resolve. Although James Small on the right wing dropped the ball with the line at his mercy after a slashing break by the Springbok full back Theo Van Rensburg, they scored two excellent converted tries in the final eight minutes. New cap Pieter Muller broke through the All Black midfield and scored in the 74th minute and almost on full-time Danie Gerber again broke through to score his second try and leave the Springboks three points adrift when the final whistle went.

The final score line was much closer than the run of play had suggested but the problems faced by the Springboks on their return to international rugby were highlighted when Australia, the reigning world champions, beat them convincingly by 26 points to 3 a week later at Newlands.

Three years later the Springboks beat the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup Final but only one Springbok, the winger James Small, would survive from this match in August 1992 to play his part in that epic victory in front of President Nelson Mandela.


  • Men in Black (5th edition) - Chester, McMillan and Palenski (Hodder Moa Beckett Publishers 2000)
  • Rugby at Ellis Park 1928-2016 - McLennan & Sibul (David McLennan 2017)
  • Rugby's Greatest Rivalry - Paul Dobson (Human & Rousseau 1996)
  • Springbok Rugby - Chris Greyvenstein (Sable Media Pty 1995)
  • World Rugby Museum match spreadsheets (Richard Steele 2021)

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.