The greatest rugby rivalry of the amateur era

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The first rugby Test I watched was as a boy, when the mighty 1949 All Blacks played the Springboks at the old Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

The good aspect was the sheer nerve-tingling excitement of seeing the giants of the day bashing into each other, and the skill of the backs probing for a gap to race to the tryline.

Hansie Brewis, the Springbok flyhalf, did just that, feinting a drop and scurrying in to score a brilliant try.

Another good aspect of that tour was that it revived the tremendous All Black vs Springbok rivalry, which had been dormant since the best Springbok team ever beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in 1937.

However this rivalry revival was brought about by the bad.

The bad was that the All Blacks were beaten in the first Test at Newlands by the boot of Okay Geffin, and this poisoned the whole series, leading to a 4-0 whitewash by the Springboks.

One of the worst aspects of the tour was the ridiculous travel itinerary foisted upon the All Blacks by the South African rugby authorities, and some dubious home town refereeing.

In 1956, while at boarding school in Grahamstown, the much-anticipated Springbok tour to New Zealand produced a series which at times more resembled a full scale war between two rugby-mad nations than a memorable clash between the two ultimate amateur exponents of the great winter team game.

The All Blacks extracted revenge in convincing fashion with some very good football, but soured the pitch with dubious tactics in the scrums in the third Test, and some refereeing which left a bad taste in the Springboks’ mouths.

The old nemesis of hometown referees played a part in the controversy surrounding the tour, but there was little doubt the 1956 All Blacks were a better team than the Springboks.

The good side of the Springbok defeat was that most of the team still had a wonderful time in hospitable (off the field) rugby-mad New Zealand.

Wilson Whineray’s 1960 All Blacks produced some grand forward play in a tough tour of South Africa, but the standard of their backline play was disappointing.

The pendulum swung again and, as had happened in 1949, the calibre of South African refereeing was in question, with some dubious decisions going against the tourists.

The 1965 Springbok tour to New Zealand resulted in a crushing defeat inflicted by one of the very best All Black teams of the amateur era.

The overall standard of forward play by a truly great All Black pack (and competent backs) totally overwhelmed a Springbok team which lacked the mongrel and fire of traditional Springbok packs.

The standout feature of the Test series was the magnificent standard the All Black pack maintained. The bad aspect was that except for one gutsy display in the mud, the Springboks were rendered toothless by a poor pack of forwards, unable to supply enough ball to some fine backs at their disposal.

The good aspect of the 1970 All Blacks tour was the intensity of all the Tests, though this was marred by the dirty play of the second Test at Newlands and the poor selections made by the All Black management at crucial times.

This was Test rugby at its toughest and in the end the Springbok forwards prevailed. The All Black backs were not up to the anticipated All Black standard throughout the tour.

One had the feeling that Andy Leslie’s 1976 team in South Africa was not of the same calibre as the previous All Black teams which visited South Africa. The forward play was desultory at times but some sparkling moments came from the Springbok backs to sweeten the pill.

Finally, the very good aspect of the 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand was the high standard of backline play by the Springboks in particular, and also some good backline skills by the All Blacks.

The worst aspect of the tour was the presence of the thuggish rent-a mob protest idiots, and the highly dubious decisions by Clive Norling in the Eden Park flour bomb Test.

Despite the political cloud which hung over the entire tour, the good was once again the passion and hospitality of the average Kiwi rugby fan.

Ironically, this was one of the best Springbok teams to tour overseas, which in terribly difficult circumstances came within a whisker (Norling’s moustache) of beating the All Blacks in their own backyard.

The ultimate rugby rivalry in the amateur era was the memorable clashes between the All Blacks and the Springboks over a 53-year period from 1928 to 1981.

The good of being banished for a decade was that Springboks could start to include players from all population groups within the country on readmission; the bad was the length of time for the isolation to bite.

It caused the rugby world to miss out on seeing some truly outstanding Springboks of the mid and late 80s, and the ugly was the absence of tours to and from South Africa because of them being the pariahs of the world.

Fortunately the ultimate rugby rivalry has survived, so good prevails over the bad and the ugly.

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