This is a memoir from 1985. It was the year in which a group of barristers got together and nobbled a rugby tour of South Africa. It was also the year I switched sports to rugby- not the other way around; and for a bit of an unusual reason. The following is about how those two events became inter-woven.
You may say, ‘Why drag up old bones like this?’ I guess I’d just reply that I’m not judging, only recounting. Aside from the fact boredom has kicked in a bit during lockdown, so I decided to get writing on some old, but pretty clear, memories of an interesting time:
To tour or not to tour, that was the question..
Philip Recordon. Later to become District Court judge Philip Recordon. His unusual last name has always stuck. Thirty-six years ago, he and his lawyer colleague, Paddy Finnigan, went to the New Zealand High Court and were eventually granted an injunction that got a sporting tour aborted.
It meant that the 1985 All Blacks couldn’t tour South Africa to play rugby. Pro-tour advocates maintained it was an attack on individual freedom. Those against may have countered with, ‘With freedom comes responsibility.’
In the beginning I didn’t know what to think. When South Africa toured here in 1981, as a sports-mad young boy I just looked forward to the games. It would have felt different if we had been the ones going there in ‘81- in that case I may well have thought we were more implicitly aggrandising their sordid, apartheid-ruling government.
But still: In 1981 our government chose to ignore a Commonwealth-imposed boycott of official contact with South Africa, in the shape of the Gleneagles Agreement, and we were presented with the bulldog-like defiance of Prime Minister Muldoon sniping at reporters; refuting any criticism of the government for giving the NZ Rugby Football Union its blessing for the tour to go ahead. (in fact those opposed were usually labelled ‘Pinkos’, including by some in the government).
The consequence being that any innocence our country ever had left over beforehand was to disappear rapidly over seven short weeks of turmoil almost as soon as the Springboks arrived to commence their tour.
1984 ended and I felt stressed by having a fellow student, who was supposed to be a mate, turning out to be a dysfunctional bully. I solved a part of this dilemma by opting to spurn soccer in favour of rugby for the next school sports season. I knew the bully would never switch codes to follow. I guess that’s how desperate I’d become. I even changed a school subject option for fifth form just for the purpose of avoiding the bully.
I managed to talk my really good mate from primary school days, Jono H, into trialling for the 6th Grade under 53kg ‘A’s for our high school, in 1985. We both made it, as fifteen year-olds- him as a lock and me as a wing. I was pretty slow for a wing, I’m sure.
Our coach turned out to be the inaugural president of the North Harbour Rugby Union, Jim Stuart. North Harbour was co-incidentally in its first year of existence. Jim’s son, Jamie, was our first-five eighth- a very good player. Our second-five was later to become the all-time record points scorer (and still is) for North Harbour in the NPC, Warren Burton. Warren was just a third-former then, but boy, could he play. And he had a killer side-step. Talk about being lucky to play in a team like that in my first-ever year of rugby.
We had the players to win the title, but ended up second equal. I think the perennially strong Westlake Boy’s took the honours. But second equal on the ladder wasn’t bad going for a 50-50 split Co-ed school.
I remember the feeling of coming onto the left wing at halftime in our first match. And the thrill of cutting inside an opponent and linking with the forwards. The exhorting of the sideline crowd was something I can recall- the rugby crowd was bigger and louder than what I’d been used to with soccer. I remember the noise and effort of the scrums pushing against each other, even though the body weights were light.
‘I’m not sure whether you’re brave or silly’
It was after one of our practices a few weeks later that I realised the paralleled significance of taking up rugby for the first time, in 1985. The time was drawing near when the All Blacks were due to embark on their tour of South Africa: A tour that would be taking place in the shadow of even greater violence against blacks and coloureds than there had been in 1981. The following year was almost a nadir for that and ironically we did go then; albeit in the shape of a rebel team- The Cavaliers.
As the time got closer to the All Blacks leaving, the issue of them going grew at greater speed every day from a sporting and political issue into a social one. And there were street protests here. Very vociferous ones. it was a microcosm of 1981. The government implored the NZRFU to call the tour off. But to no avail.
There was also the issue of unhappy adults whose kids were involved in the sport.
One day after practice, Jono and me were at his house, probably eating a good stack of biscuits and drinking milk (our version of the modern protein shake!), when Jono’s dear-departed mum sidled up to the dining table where we were and after a bit of idle chat she rather out of the blue remarked, ‘You boys did pick a funny time to suddenly start playing rugby, didn’t you?’ I twigged pretty quickly to what she meant. And then: ‘I’m not sure whether you’re brave or silly.’ That hit home. I could sense she wasn’t all that thrilled about her son joining up. I shouldn’t have felt guilty, but I kind of did. She was such a great lady, and the secretary of our primary school for years.
‘Ooooh, what a he-man’
It did seem weird and wrong that the our national rugby body would ever contemplate going to South Africa that year- they seemed tone deaf, when meanwhile the international drums grew ever louder for a blanket trade and sporting boycott of that country.
Our government of the day was definitely not impressed, and spoke of international embarrassment at best should the tour proceed. At worst there was the prospect of trade sanctions mentioned, as I recall. There was also the situation of Nelson Mandela’s continued imprisonment, which was fast becoming a genuine issue in the global consciousness. This song entered the NZ charts in 1984. The lyrics are pretty powerful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLMV7Buj5g0.
I’d never have gone as far as to give up rugby if we had gone to tour. At least I’m ninety-nine point nine percent sure I wouldn’t have done so, but having listened to the comment from Jono’s mum, and then felt a little implicit in her son playing a sport she wasn’t very happy about, things were feeling rather awkward and uncomfortable. I would have been the ultimate hypocrite though by stopping playing if the tour had proceeded- because I undoubtedly would have watched all the matches on TV. I mean, I just know I would have.
Interestingly, 1985 was also the year that ‘The Kiwis’, our national rugby league team coached by Graham Lowe, captured the imagination of the public in a big way with a thrilling series against the Kangaroos. We used to organise almost-clandestine games of rugby league in the lunch break, and some of my peers and a group of senior students even wanted to start a school rugby league team. They may as well have asked if it was alright to cheat on their exams.
However, any personal ideals I had about the All Blacks not going over to Africa were soon, as I discovered, not exactly universally shared by some other students Let’s just say that rugby was deeply entrenched at our school. Our principal was an ex All Black, and his deputy was also a staunch rugby man.
You as well had to be pretty careful what you said about rugby in that environment. For example, there was plenty of support for the government in the electorate and school zone in which we lived.
On the other hand, in general in the main centres (certainly in Auckland and Wellington, at least), the tide was against the NZRFU and the All Blacks:
Before some shit started, there were other stand-out memories of my fifth form classes. I remember Janine E, the girl who sat directly in front of me in our home form class, 5 EL. She was a huge ‘Tears for Fears’ fan- if they had been a subject in School Cert she’d have absolutely aced it.
Our maths teacher, Mr D, used to pop out of the class for a cigarette a couple of times each lesson. I went from doing well in fourth form maths, to pretty bleakly in 1985. If it had been all arithmetic and nothing else, I’d have been purring.
One afternoon in History class, the ruckus came. The issue of the South African tour happened to come up. On a spur of the moment I piped up in favour of the All Blacks aborting their tour. I actually didn’t speak up first. It was one of the girls who said simply, ‘I don’t think they should go.’ I instinctively supported her with ‘Neither do I.’
The response was taunting. From behind, it shot like an arrow: ‘Ooooh, what a he-man.’ It was obviously meant for me. And then the other rubbish started. I think there were three or four. It was fists into palms, with the threat repeated a few times, ‘Beats, beats, beats.’ But I wasn’t fazed by the dickheads. I think what I actually thought was ‘F*** you.’ For the first time probably in my life I’d taken a stand on something. And it felt damn good.
I’ll always love rugby. The two and a bit years I played it were some of the best times of my life. But there are also times in life where people should say or do what’s decent and proper. And so, even though a lot wanted them to be ‘done over’, I’ll always be grateful to that group of lawyers; two in particular (who were both actively involved in rugby), for contending that it was disreputable for our most famous national team to tacitly support a racially separatist regime and government by going on a tour in a capacity as official representatives of New Zealand.
God knows, it could have ended up with civil war Version 2.0 on the streets here if that last-minute injunction in the NZ High Court hadn’t been enacted.
ADDITIONAL: (Background to the court injunction which prevented the tour from going ahead. The piece is from the Law Society, but it’s not too heavy or lengthy)
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