Since rugby went professional in 1995, countries like Australia, England and France have challenged New Zealand and South Africa’s claims to be the two powerhouses of world rugby. Even so, there are few games bigger than the All Blacks versus the Springboks.
Most New Zealand rugby players viewed playing the Springboks as the pinnacle of their career. In 1981 two notable exceptions were test incumbents Bruce Robertson and the then captain, Graham Mourie. Both declared themselves unavailable for selection against the Springboks. Robertson had toured South Africa and was ‘embittered by the experience, both for the non-award of penalty tries for Springbok offences and his personal abhorrence of apartheid’.
Games between these two nations have become the stuff of folklore, a source of national heroes and villains. The first official series, a visit by South Africa in 1921, ended in a tie when the deciding test at Wellington’s Athletic Park was drawn 0–0. The game was played in a rainstorm, and things got so muddy that spectators slid all the way down the western bank (this was before the Millard stand was built).
In 1928 the All Blacks toured South Africa, and over the course of three months they played 22 matches, winning 16. The test series was tied 2–2, and a great rivalry was born.
In 1949 the Springboks whitewashed the All Blacks 4–0, plunging New Zealand into a state of despair. The revenge secured by the legendary 1956 All Blacks was greeted as if New Zealand had just won a war.
When New Zealand lost the 1995 World Cup final in extra time to the host nation, South Africa, there were allegations that a hotel employee named Suzy had poisoned the All Blacks. Although nothing was proven, for some New Zealand fans this was further evidence of the lengths to which the South Africans would go to win. Games between the two have often attracted attention for rough play – as in 1994, when All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick was bitten by the South African front-row forward Johan le Roux – which has been attributed to the two teams’ pride in their physical prowess and determination to win.
Despite controversies on the pitch, why should a sporting event be the source of civil unrest? What these statistics and results fail to reveal is that until 1992 the racial policies of South Africa meant that teams were selected on the basis of race.