The All Blacks accepted an invitation to tour South Africa in 1976 – a time when world attention was firmly fixed on the republic because of the Soweto riots. Hundreds were killed as the authorities ruthlessly suppressed protests. An All Blacks’ tour under such conditions was not only intolerable to many New Zealanders but also attracted international condemnation. Black African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest, firmly putting sports and politics back onto the same stage.
New Zealand’s international reputation had been damaged. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, though, maintained that a free and democratic country could not restrict the rights of its citizens to travel overseas. He reiterated his belief that sports and politics should be kept separate.
The Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in 1977 discussed the South African question and unanimously adopted the Gleneagles Agreement, promising to ‘discourage’ contact and competition between their sportsmen and sporting organisations, teams or individuals from South Africa.
Despite Gleneagles, Robert Muldoon made it clear that the government would not allow political interference in sport in any form. The NZRFU took this as a green light, and in September 1980 invited the South Africans to tour the following year. The deputy prime minister, Brian Talboys wrote to Ces Blazey, the NZRFU chairman, expressing concern that a tour was even being considered. He was concerned that such contact would be seen as condoning apartheid and would affect ‘how New Zealand is judged in the international arena’. Robert Muldoon said that he could see ‘nothing but trouble coming from this’, but when confronted with the choice of cancelling the tour, he spoke of ‘our kith and kin’ in South Africa and the fact that New Zealanders and South Africans had served side by side in the Second World War. He reiterated his mantra that New Zealand was a free and democratic country and that ‘politics should stay out of sport’. Brian Talboys stressed that the government had done everything in its power, short of coercion, to halt the tour.
Robert Muldoon had made sporting contact with South Africa an election issue in 1975, and with another election due in late 1981, he was prepared to do so again. Public opinion polls indicated that support for the proposed tour was high in provincial New Zealand, home to six crucial marginal electorates. Muldoon knew the tour could prove decisive come polling day.
Historian Jock Phillips explains Muldoon’s attitude by considering the values of men of his generation. They had grown up in depression and war. They believed strongly in the British Empire and the role of New Zealand men in armed conflict, and rugby was central to this culture. Its emphasis on physical strength and teamwork made it the perfect training for war. Muldoon was himself a war veteran, as were seven members of his first Cabinet. The so-called Rob’s Mob – older, male, blue-collar, often provincial, New Zealanders – supported this outlook.