From the mid-1960s it was clear that the issue of New Zealand-South African rugby contact was central to South Africa's attempts to maintain international sporting contact. It was equally clear that those opposed to apartheid believed that by isolating South African sport the ability to force real change increased. In July 1969 HART (Halt All Racist Tours) was founded by University of Auckland students with the specific aim of opposing sporting contact with South Africa. With a Springbok tour to New Zealand proposed for 1973, the issue was to become increasingly politicised.
In the run-up to the 1972 election, Norman Kirk, the Labour opposition leader, promised not to interfere with the tour. After winning the election, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the NZRFU to withdraw its invitation to the Springboks while at the same time attempting to negotiate with a number of anti-tour activists and groups. His advice from the police was that that if the tour went ahead it would ‘engender the greatest eruption of violence this country has ever known.’ As if to warn him as to the potential for civil unrest the rugby grandstand at Papakura was burnt down on 9 April 1973 but Kirk’s mind had already been made up. Days earlier he had written to the NZRFU informing them that the government saw ‘no alternative, pending selection on a genuine merit basis, to a postponement of the tour’. Aware of the likely fall-out from this decision—there was strong public support for the tour—Kirk conceded that he would be ‘failing in his duty’ if he didn’t ‘accept the criticism and do what [he] believed to be right…the Government was elected to govern’.
The decision to ‘postpone’ the tour was also influenced by the fact that Christchurch was hosting the 1974 Commonwealth Games and a boycott by black African nations of these games was likely should the tour proceed. Critics of the decision believed that not only had Kirk performed a policy back-flip he had bowed to threats from ‘rent-a-mob’ activists. Those who believed ‘sports and politics don’t mix’ (referred to by activist Tim Shadbolt as KEEPOOS – Keep Politics out of Sport) never forgave him.
There is no-doubt the decision hurt Labour at the following general election in 1975. While National had itself cancelled an earlier tour in 1967 what appeared to hurt Labour the most was its original pledge not to interfere. National's new leader Robert Muldoon declared that the cancellation of the tour was 'one issue on which people will change their vote'. He maintained that a National Government would welcome a Springbok team to New Zealand, 'even if there were threats of violence and civil strife’. Muldoon's confidence on the matter seemed confirmed by National's landslide victory. Events in 1976 and 1981 perhaps vindicated Kirk’s earlier decision.