Cavaliers rugby tour, 1986

Jersey from the Cavaliers rugby tour of South Africa in 1986

The Cavaliers and the 1987 Rugby World Cup

The Cavaliers tour of South Africa – a so-called unofficial venture in which key rugby figures in both New Zealand and the host nation were involved – took place in 1986. This was at a time when national teams were effectively banned from playing South Africa because of the republic’s apartheid policies.

All but two of the 30 players selected for the cancelled 1985 All Black tour of South Africa took part. The International Rugby Football Board expressed its disapproval.

Like other sportspeople who visited South Africa in this era, the Cavaliers (as well as their opponents) were said to have been paid generously, in violation of rugby’s prevailing amateur ethos. Leaving aside moral considerations, the ill-starred trek did underline the need to modernise rugby’s financial arrangements. Their jersey sported a silver fern, a springbok – and a sponsor’s logo. While overt professionalism was still nearly a decade away, from now on top players would be generously compensated through commercial arrangements, not all of which were sanctioned by rugby officialdom.

In the short term, the main effect of the Cavaliers tour was to disrupt the All Blacks’ preparation for the 1987 Rugby World Cup. The rebels were let off very lightly, being banned for just two tests. They were then blended uneasily with their temporary replacements, the ‘Baby Blacks’. Yet their trials on the high veldt (they blamed the referee for losing the series) and back home laid the foundations for victory in 1987. More than half the team that won the Rugby World Cup final against France with a combination of ruthless efficiency and attacking flair had been Cavaliers a year earlier.

A less positive outcome of the Cavaliers tour was the Labour government’s refusal to invite overseas dignitaries to attend the Rugby World Cup or host functions for visiting players and administrators. But when Prime Minister David Lange went further and boycotted matches, other ministers were happy to take his place.

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