18 September 2023
From The Vaults
It is now thirty-five years since one of the most controversial rugby union test series took place in South Africa in the spring of 1986.
The rivalry between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South African Springboks had been intense ever since their first meeting in 1921. The generation of leading players in the mid-1980s were almost without exception keen for that rivalry to continue despite the growing public awareness of the injustices that were occurring daily in apartheid South Africa.
After two tours by the All Blacks to South Africa in 1970 and 1976, the first tours which permitted players of Maori and Samoan heritage to tour the country, the Springboks made their first tour to New Zealand since 1965 in 1981. The tour was marred by protests both inside and outside the grounds where the matches were being played. Two matches had to be cancelled and the decision to allow the tour split the country and divided many families. Furthermore, the damaging images of the pilot of a light plane flour-bombing the players on the pitch during the nail-biting deciding third test in Auckland were seen all around the world.
The plans for the All Blacks to tour South Africa in 1985 were thwarted by legal action at the last moment which meant that the leading All Blacks of the 1980s were denied the opportunity to face their historic rivals in a test series officially sanctioned by the International Rugby Board. A two-test tour to Argentina was hastily arranged in October and November 1985 but was not the same thing and the holy grail of touring South Africa appeared to be out of reach.
The tour by leading New Zealand players to South Africa that eventually took place a year later was described in the Rothmans Rugby Yearbook of 1987-88 as:
"… to all intents a tour by rebel New Zealanders, undertaken completely without the sanction of the New Zealand rugby authorities. It reflected the frustration on the part of the players that official tours to South Africa had been denied them."
The tour in April and May 1986 was arranged in great secrecy to the extent that a number of the New Zealanders who toured to South Africa had taken part in the IRB's official centenary celebrations in the UK only a month earlier. All but two of the leading All Blacks - winger John Kirwan and scrum half David Kirk - decided to go to South Africa and, as the tourists were not permitted to be called the All Blacks, they were known as the New Zealand Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers played 12 matches on tour including a four-match test series in which they were ultimately well beaten. Their captain, the experienced hooker Andy Dalton, suffered a broken jaw from a punch in the second tour match against Northern Transvaal. Although his assailant, the Springbok flanker Burger Geldenhuys was sanctioned by not being allowed to play in the forthcoming test series, the Cavaliers had lost their captain for the rest of the tour and Jock Hobbs, captain of the All Blacks in Argentina the previous autumn, took over the captaincy.
The Cavaliers were a formidable squad packed with some legendary All Blacks. Gary Knight, Andy Haden, Mark Shaw, Murray Mexted and the Whetton brothers provided essential strength in the forwards and the young Grant Fox and Wayne Smith at fly half marshalled a strong backline. They faced a committed Springbok team with relatively little test match experience but with such luminaries as captain Naas Botha at fly half, Danie Gerber in the centre, the dynamic hooker Ule Schmidt, the gigantic lock Louis Moolman, and future captain Jannie Breedt at number 8.
The lead-up to the first test involved five matches and the Cavaliers came through with their only defeat at the hands of a powerful Transvaal pack with a kicking fly half, the formula which undid them in the opening test in the rain at Newlands, Cape Town. They surprisingly relegated Jock Hobbs to the bench with Andy Haden assuming the captaincy, but Naas Botha did the damage with three penalties and two drop goals topped off by an exquisite kick to the corner for left wing Carel Du Plessis to outpace the Cavaliers full back to score the decisive try for a 21-15 victory.
A convincing victory over Natal provided much-needed confidence before the second test a week later at King's Park, Durban. An exceptionally tight match saw the Cavaliers pack dominant with Dave Loveridge playing superbly at scrum half, but it needed Naas Botha, the Springbok hero a week earlier, to miss numerous shots at goal to leave the Cavaliers in front 9-8 at the final whistle.
The Cavaliers saw off the South African Barbarians 42-13 in a night match mid-week and approached the crucial third test at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria in good heart. 68,000 spectators saw a closely fought match tied at 18-ll with eleven minutes to go. But Botha landed a penalty and then the Springbok backs cut loose and scored two superb tries from Danie Gerber and winger Jaco Reinach, a champion Springbok athlete who died tragically young in a car accident at the age of just thirty five and whose son Cobus became a Springbok scrum half. The Springboks now led the series by 2-1 with two tour matches remaining.
Western Transvaal were beaten 26-18 in Potchefstroom and all roads led to the fourth and final test at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The Cavaliers had now played 11 matches in just over a month and the Springboks were favourites to win and take the series. Concerns about the refereeing of Ken Rowlands in the test matches re-surfaced and uniquely he sent two players to the sin bin for five minutes for fighting in the first half. The Cavaliers again led at half-time by 10 points to 6 but they ran out of steam and were unable to halt the Springbok surge in the second half. The Springboks scored 18 points without reply, scrum half Garth Wright scored their only try at the end of the match, and Botha kicked 17 points to ensure a convincing 24-10 victory and the series win.
The Cavaliers returned to New Zealand to a very mixed reception. Some players were never selected to represent New Zealand again, but choosing not to tour with the Cavaliers did not harm the future careers of either David Kirk or John Kirwan.
In his book 'Black and Blue' written over ten years later, David Kirk described his decision not to tour as "finally a moral decision" and shared his belief that sports boycotts, like trade boycotts, did hurt the apartheid regime. He would go on to captain the All Blacks in their World Cup winning campaign in 1987 and have a distinguished business career including being Chief Executive Officer of Fairfax Media from 2005 to 2008. His fellow tour absentee and 1987 World Cup winner, John Kirwan had an impressive coaching career after a majestic test career as an immensely powerful and skilful try-scoring winger of the highest quality. His work as a role model for those with mental health difficulties led to him being knighted in 2012.
- Cavaliers in South Africa - Doug Laing (South Sea Visuals, Auckland) 1986
- Black and Blue - David Kirk (Hodder Moa Beckett 1997)
- Men in Black - RH Chester & NAC McMillan (5th edition - Moa Beckett 1994)
- Rothmans Rugby Yearbook 1987-88 (Editor: Stephen Jones)
- A Statistical History of Springbok Rugby - Teddy Shnaps (Don Nelson Publishers SA 1989)
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.
24 March 2023