09 May 2023
From The Vaults
Owl Creek Polo Field in Glenville, New York State, can lay claim to being the most unlikely international rugby ground of the last 150 years. On Friday 25 September 1981 it was the venue for the inaugural test match between the USA Eagles and the South African Springboks. The Springboks had travelled to the States for three matches following their tumultuous 14-match tour of New Zealand which ended with a series defeat in the final minute of the epic third test at Eden Park, Auckland.
Such was the social and political uproar caused by the Springboks tour in New Zealand that the three-match American leg of the tour had to overcome massive hurdles before each of the matches took place. The test itself was played in such secrecy that the non-playing Springboks and the South African travelling press were not told the venue of the match until after it had taken place.
The first match of the American leg took place on Saturday 19 September against a Midwest XV in Racine, 10 miles south of Milwaukee. The match should have been played in Chicago, but the opposition in the city to the apartheid policies of the South African government was so widespread that a venue had to be found where any unrest could be controlled by the police. Roosevelt Field in Racine was located 100 miles from Chicago and contained a gridiron pitch which was hastily converted into a rugby ground for the match. The Springboks won convincingly 46-12 despite a brief disturbance created by demonstrators midway through the second half.
The second match against an Eastern XV on Tuesday 22 September ran into similar problems. Due to be played at the Bleecker Stadium in Albany, the Governor of New York objected and it required a decision by the Supreme Court in Washington to uphold the right of the Eastern Rugby Union to stage the match at the stadium and receive protection from the police. The crowd inside the ground of 300 was outnumbered by more than 1,000 demonstrators outside the ground, but the Springboks won the match convincingly by 41-0 in driving rain and then went straight to buses parked at the opposite end of the ground to the demonstrators to be driven away to change at their hotel.
"Journalists became suspicious when the team left their hotel early on Friday. By 4 pm in the afternoon news filtered through that that it was all over: the match had been played on a polo field in nearby Glenville and the Boks had won 38-7. Such was the suddenness of the decision that the Boks were told - Get dressed, you're going to play it right now."
The non-playing members of the Springbok touring party did not accompany the side to Glenville and the President of the USA Rugby Football Association, David Chambers from Texas, was not informed and was shocked to hear that he and other executive members had missed the test. The officially appointed referee, Ian Nixon, was due to arrive later that day as the match had been originally scheduled to be played on the Saturday, and so he had to be replaced by Don Morrison, a local referee. Don Morrison was rung at four o'clock on the Friday morning and asked to drive immediately to Albany from where he was escorted to the ground with Jim Townsend, the American touch judge, amid elaborate security precautions.
For a view of how the Eagles players saw the preparations for the match, their second row forward Bob Causey gave an interview to Tom Crosby on the 30th anniversary of the match in 2011:
"At 7 a.m. Friday he was awakened and told to get dressed in his game kit and don't call anyone. They sent the South African players extra US kits, so they wouldn't be noticed leaving the hotel. Everyone left in small groups. They drove out of the city until they reached what seemed to be a pasture. It was the Owl Creek Polo Ground. The match was called so quickly and secretively the president of the USA Rugby Union didn't know it was being held. Bob recalls a handful of the neighbours who came out and an occasional helicopter flying overhead.
When the match ended and they arrived at the Saratoga Racetrack for the match reception, they found out the area had been surrounded by the State Police Swat Team. Later back at the hotel, the television news had live pictures of protestors being loaded onto buses to go to the match."
Forty years later, the history books record that the Springboks won convincingly 38-7 in front of a crowd of around 150 people and that their wingers, Ray Mordt and Gerrie Germishuys scored five tries between them. But it was an extraordinary day for all the players involved, and none more so than Thys Burger, the thrice capped Northern Transvaal and Springbok back row forward.
As the ground at Owl Creek was set out for a polo match, Burger had the task of helping the groundsmen erect the rugby posts and then officiating as one of the touch-judges. His work was still not complete because he was required to forego his touch judge duties and take the field as a substitute for Theuns Stofberg in the 25th minute of the second half. He celebrated the final match of his Springbok test career by scoring the eighth and final try in the Springboks' victory. In the 19th century you might have laid out the rugby pitch and then been one of the touch-judges, but I doubt you would have come onto the field in the 2nd half and scored a try!
- Apartheid, Bob "Big Red" Causey & the Springboks 1981 Tour ([email protected] 1981)
- Barbed Wire Boks - Don Cameron (Rugby Press, Auckland 1981)
- Interview with the referee, Don Morrison (sareferees.co.za 2012)
- More than just rugby - Wynand Claassen & Dan Retief (Hans Strydom Publishers, Johannesburg 1985)
- Springboks under Siege - Colin Bryden and Mark Colley (NOW Publications, Hillbrow 1981)
About the Author - A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.
13 March 2023