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'There's never a winner, just the next battle': The intense 102-year old rivalry that 'neutrals can't quite comprehend'

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27th October, 2023
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It all began on the 13th August 1921. New Zealand versus South Africa may not be rugby’s oldest rivalry, but incorporating the two nations who take rugby more seriously than anyone else, it is indisputably the game’s greatest. And the fitting stage for the next battle between them is Stade de France in Sunday’s (AEDT) World Cup final.

It’s a rivalry that has seen off a World War, political exile, social awakenings and its first venue, Dunedin’s Carisbrook, where the All Blacks scored three tries to one on the way to winning 13-5.

It’s been 102 years filled with momentous nation-shaping moments, epic rugby contests, and nuggets of trivia that would easily fill 20 times the space allowed here. Take your pick from this first match alone, where Transvaal winger AJ van Heerden became the first try-scorer in All Blacks versus Springboks history, All Blacks prop Ned Hughes was aged 40, and remains the oldest player ever to wear the silver fern, and the All Blacks wore letters on the backs of their jerseys, instead of numbers.

The third match at Wellington’s Athletic Park resulted in a 0-0 draw, a scoreline that implies a dour struggle, although match reports insist this was more a result of a flooded pitch. Wellington’s reputation as a difficult place to play open rugby was already established.

South Africa first hosted in 1928 and, as in 1921, the series was squared. Along with fellow Maori Jimmy Mill, All Blacks great George Nepia was barred from playing in the republic, a foretaste of the rocky periods that would endure over the following decades.

Home series wins became the norm, a sign of the enormity of the task faced by touring sides required to front up twice weekly, penal travel schedules eating into available training time, and home-town referees testing patience and resolve.

The players of South Africa watch on as Aaron Smith of New Zealand leads the Haka prior to kick-off ahead of the Summer International match between New Zealand All Blacks v South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on August 25, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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After an enforced 11-year lay-off due to World War Two, the Springboks returned to international rugby with a swagger, blanking the 1949 All Blacks 4-0, with stout prop ‘Okey’ Geffin stubbing penalty goals for fun in the square-toed style that held sway for much of the century.

New Zealand introduced their own front-on kicking ace in 1956. Don Clarke made his Test debut in the 3-1 series win to the All Blacks. The final Test at Eden Park is remembered for an iconic All Blacks try, scored by flanker Peter Jones, before Jones ensured his place in New Zealand folklore by announcing to the crowd gathered afterwards that he was “buggered”.

The match was played in front of 61,240, well in excess of today’s capacity. A photo of Jones in the act of scoring captures why: a tree-filled bank filled with thousands of people, jammed shoulder to shoulder, spilling down to the point where fans are literally sitting on the field of play.

Note the lengthy intervals between engagements. The 50th Test between the nations was played in July 1998, 77 years after the first. The next 50 matches came in just 23 years, testament to the nature of professional sport, where content and revenue generation is king.

My first taste of Springboks rugby came in 1970, being woken by my father and allowed to sit, rugged up with a hot mug of Milo, around the transistor radio to listen to Bob Irvine call the action from what really felt like was the other side of the world.

No matter how respectful we might be of history, for a young tacker who slept with a rugby ball on the end of the bed, the great rivalry had suddenly taken on a sharper edge. The players were now real people I had seen on television or, in the case of legendary lock Colin Meads, been ball boy for at the local domain.

From that tour, great rugby names roll of the tongue: Meads, Brian Lochore, Ian Kirkpatrick, Alex Wyllie, Chris Laidlaw, Grahame Thorne, Keith Murdoch and 19-year-old Bryan Williams, who had sidestepped the opposition through a 20-match unbeaten sweep through the provincial matches. Yet, despite this apparent embarrassment of riches, the All Blacks still fell short, 3-1, losing 20-17 in the final Test at Ellis Park.

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Bryan Williams

Bryan Williams is an All Blacks legend. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Boks had great names too: captain Dawie de Villiers, Piet Visage, Frik du Preez, Piet Greyling and powerful crash merchant, Joggie Jansen. More so, the South Africans had a mentality that was not only proving impossible to break down, it was the very rock that the rivalry was built upon.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than by Meads, who after being hampered by a broken arm suffered during the tour and playing only in the final two Tests complete with a cast on his arm, returned to South Africa in 1975, by now 39, and retired from international rugby with his club side Waitete.

Meads had phoned South African Rugby Board president Danie Craven to ask him to arrange a suitable itinerary for his side, which was truly a country club side made up of sheep farmers, scrub cutters and railway workers from one of New Zealand’s back blocks. But what was intended as a fun pre-season tour turned into an ambush, where hardened Springboks were added to provincial strength opposition.

As ever, when an opportunity presented itself for South African rugby to assert itself over New Zealand rugby, it was taken.

By now it was becoming problematic for New Zealand rugby to return the favour. After the Springboks were invited to tour in 1973, the incumbent National government, who were in favour of maintaining a bridge with the South African government, lost power. Incoming Labour prime minister Norman Kirk too had campaigned in favour of the tour, but it was no surprise when, soon afterwards, he bowed to pressure to cancel the tour.

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Another change of government in 1975 facilitated the All Blacks’ return to South Africa in 1976. This proved to be an unhappy tour, as players and officials came to terms with its unpopularity at home and, arriving in the immediate aftermath of deadly rioting in Soweto, being forced to process increasingly visible racial inequality.

The fallout was global. The Montreal Olympic Games were severely impacted by the withdrawal of 31 African countries due to New Zealand’s presence, and South Africa grew increasingly isolated politically, commercially and in sport.

Undeterred, the New Zealand Rugby Union maintained that they had the support of a majority of New Zealanders, and invited their great rival back in 1981.

Forty years on, families and friendships remain splintered by what transpired. Anger was palpable on both sides; incredulity at not seeing what the rest of the world was seeing, tacit support for a racist regime, versus bewilderment at how people couldn’t separate a simple game of rugby from the wider politics.

Outside of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and two World Wars, the 1981 Springboks tour arguably remains the single most nation-shaping event in New Zealand’s history. Never before or since had New Zealanders been so polarised, or even contemplated that they could be so vehemently divided on any issue.

Thus, a sleepy, naïve nation was forced to come to terms with barbed wire, baton-charging police, dive-bombing planes and open-cut tennis balls filled with fish hooks lobbed on to playing pitches like deadly grenades.

Home players fell into three broad camps: those who wondered what all the fuss was about and who wanted to be left alone to play rugby, a small group who refused to play, and a third group who later regretted doing so, some because of the divisions it caused, and others who felt the Bok players weren’t grateful or understanding enough of the sacrifices that were made on their behalf.

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In truth, the tourists weren’t as much arrogant or ungrateful, but more shellshocked at finding themselves the catalyst for a level of vitriol and violence that saw them smothered in security, to the point where they were forced to spend the night before the Wellington Test on camp stretchers in the bowels of the Athletic Park grandstand.

The eventual outcome proved more beneficial for South Africa than the hosts. Flyhalf Errol Tobias, the only black player in the touring side, later explained to the Irish Times as follows.

“It was difficult, and really, we shouldn’t have gone. The people in New Zealand rightfully showed that they weren’t happy with apartheid and demonstrated against it in numbers.

“If that tour did do something good, it showed South Africans exactly what the world thought of apartheid and that was time for it to stop completely.”

South Africa’s isolation was to last another decade, with New Zealand’s 27-24 win in Johannesburg marking the Boks’ return to the world rugby stage. 1981 tour captain Wynand Claassen spoke for many South Africans when he later said the following.

“It was a special occasion… it was a close game and a wonderful atmosphere.

“I think it was appropriate that we played against the All Blacks for the first time when we came back officially into world rugby, rather than anyone else.”

There was to be no let-up to the pace of change through the nineties, with rugby’s worst-kept secret – the advent of professionalism – finally taking root in August, 1995. Before then, South Africa hosted and won its first World Cup, stopping the previously unstoppable Jonah Lomu, Joel Stransky out-drop-kicking Andrew Mehrtens, and captain Francois Pienaar and president Nelson Mandela captured in iconic scenes that transcended rugby.

James Small and Jonah Lomu

James Small and Jonah Lomu (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS via Getty Images)

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South African rugby president Louis Luyt did his best to spoil the occasion in a speech at the official dinner afterwards, claiming that this victory was proof that South Africa would have won the 1987 and 1991 World Cups. A number of All Blacks, already feeling stitched up by a mysterious food poisoning episode that swept through the side on the eve of the final, walked out in disgust, quickly followed by Welsh referee Derek Bevan, whose decision to disallow a try to France in the semi-final had allowed South Africa to progress. Luyt’s attempt to present Bevan with a gold watch for services to South African rugby was, for neutrals, a bridge too far.

Luyt’s redemption, however, was swift. With an Australian-based professional rugby troupe busy signing up players, and northern hemisphere unions oblivious to the implications of allowing their players to be signed by clubs, it was Luyt who recognised the importance of the national unions keeping the players under their umbrella.

His agitation forced New Zealand Rugby and the Australian Rugby Union into action and, at the very last minute, the Tri-Nations players fell in behind and signed with their unions. Whatever your view of that, good or bad, there can be no doubt that if not for Luyt, the rugby landscape as we know and understand it today would look very different.

The advent of the Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship has since seen matches pass in a rush, albeit not short of highlights. New Zealand’s 33-26 second Test victory in Pretoria in 1996 finally secured an elusive first away series win, South Africa’s 32-29 win in Hamilton franked a 3-0 clean sweep in 2009, and New Zealand’s 38-27 Ellis Park win in 2013 was not only the confirmation of Kieran Read as a great All Black, it remains one of the finest rugby Tests ever played.

Lowlights? It’s hard to go past the two proud nations, at the 1999 World Cup, reduced to fronting up for the match nobody wants to play or watch – the third-place play-off – in a cold, sparsely-filled Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

For every hero there has been a miscreant. Johan le Roux snacking on Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear, Romain Poite unfairly dispatching Bismarck du Plessis, RG Snyman separating Brodie Retallick’s arm from his torso, Dane Coles for being Dane Coles.

Kieran Read

Can anyone dethrone the All Blacks? (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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The rivalry’s biggest villain is undoubtedly Potchefstroom bodybuilder, Pieter Van Zyl, who in 2002 charged onto Durban’s Kings Park and dislocated referee David McHugh’s shoulder. Van Zyl’s ‘ends justify the means’ statement to the court, after he was charged and convicted of common assault, remains instructive today.

“Referees worldwide are doing South African sportsmen a disservice. The latest Tri-Nations series is a case in point. If it weren’t for the referee’s decision, South Africa would have won the series. I believe this incident will have a positive spin-off in the rugby world. Better systems for evaluation and grading of referees and other officials will be implemented,” Van Zyl said.

Sound familiar? If only, for McHugh’s sake, Van Zyl had the smarts to make a video instead.

In short, winning at rugby really matters to South Africans. Just as it does for New Zealanders. That makes for a level of grudging respect between the two nations that, for the most part, neutrals can’t quite comprehend.

Consider how both nations are the only three-time Rugby World Cup winners. Then look at how South African fans quickly remind everyone that they never played in the first two, and how quickly Kiwis point out in return, that despite the Boks winning the World Cup in Japan in 2019, they were in fact beaten by New Zealand 23-13 in pool play.

You see, between these two great rugby nations there is never really a winner. There is only ever the next battle – and that comes Sunday morning in a final to cherish.

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(This is an edited version of a story first published on The Roar in 2021 to celebrate 100 Tests between South Africa and New Zealand)

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