Three decades after captaining the 1981 Springboks on the tour that divided a nation, Wynand Claassen is preparing to return to New Zealand. He shares his memories of that infamous trip with Neil Reid.
When Wynand Claassen visits Wellington, his hotel room will surely have a comfortable double-bed, ideal for recovering after some big nights out with his '81 Springbok teammates and South African supporters. It will have room service, a laundry, a phone so he can call home, and air conditioning to keep warm if the capital is buffeted by those notorious southerlies. It will be a world away from his first trip to Wellington.
Thirty years ago, Claassen and his 31 team-mates on the 1981 South African rugby tour of New Zealand were forced to take shelter in the ageing, and very chilly, Athletic Park grandstand the night before they played the All Blacks.
It wasn't because rugby bosses during the sport's amateur era were watching their pennies. Neither was it an attempt by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union to derail the Springboks in a tight test series.
Instead, it was part of strict security arrangements put in place to keep the tourists out of harm's way amid vehement protests at their nation's apartheid regime. The team became known as the "Barbed Wire Boks".
"It was just pretty extraordinary, just bizarre in a way," said Claassen, talking to the Sunday Star-Times from Pretoria.
"In Wellington, we got off the plane and then played a bit of a game of hide and seek. We were detoured to go straight to Athletic Park and into the ground. All the police were there and that was that.
"When you look at the modern professional game, guys stay in five-star hotels. Here we were, a side trying to beat the All Blacks, staying in a function room in a grandstand.
"But we had to just fall in with the arrangements for us. The most important thing for us was that the test match went ahead, especially after the events that had happened in Hamilton when the Waikato match was cancelled."
The Springboks were provided with camp beds to rest their sizeable frames.
A few heaters were provided to ward off the chill which cut its way through Athletic Park.
A pool table and a TV were provided to help them while away the long hours.
Dozens of police officers – including the Red Squad – and barricades topped with razor-wire also surrounded the ground.
History shows that the Springboks' primitive accommodation arrangements before the August 29 test did little to put them off their stride.
After losing the first test of the tour 14-9 two weeks earlier at Christchurch's Lancaster Park, the Boks fought back to win 24-12 in Wellington.
"For us, at that stage of the tour, we just wanted to play," Classen said.
"To tour New Zealand, to play the All Blacks in New Zealand, was the ultimate for us.
"And we got used to things like that as the tour progressed and we used it to build a lot of team spirit. We came together as a team...we became a very close unit."
THE NOW-INFAMOUS tour should have been the realisation of a childhood dream for Claassen.
But right from the Boks' arrival in New Zealand on July 19, 1981, that dream turned into a living, and violent, nightmare.
For 21 years, Claassen's sporting ambitions had been driven by a goal to one day line-up in the Springbok green and gold against his country's No 1 rugby foe, the All Blacks.
He was inspired by the sight of the Boks triumphing 13-0 at Johannesburg's Ellis Park in the first test of the 1960 series.
"When I was nine years old, I saw my first test at Ellis Park and it was the All Blacks against the Springboks," Claassen said. "That scene when the two teams ran onto the field has stayed with me forever. The All Blacks had a mighty team...Peter Jones, Don Clarke, Sir Wilson Whineray...and when they took to Ellis Park with their black jerseys and their big white numbers, followed by the Springboks with their green and gold, stuck with me as a boy and I will value it for the rest of my life.
"Then I played against the All Blacks three times in 1976 but never in a test match.
"So to play against New Zealand in 1981, to be selected to tour, for me that was like a dream come true.
"I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams ever that I would tour there. New Zealand is very much part of my life and also my rugby career."
But Claassen and his team-mates learnt soon after touching down in New Zealand how unpopular their presence was.
Hundreds of demonstrators greeted them on their arrival at Auckland International Airport.
Then protesters tried to disrupt the July 22 tour-opener against Poverty Bay, pulling down a fence at Gisborne's Rugby Park. Only the quick and physical reaction of rugby fans, ground security and police prevented the intended pitch invasion.
Three days later, the protesters couldn't be stopped. About 350 of them invaded Hamilton's Rugby Park, leading to the cancellation of the Waikato game.
"We didn't realise it was going to be that intense and that the violence would be that bad...I don't think anybody in our team ever expected that to happen," Claassen said of the protests.
"Obviously there was a lot of anti-South Africa feeling which was understandable. But things got out of hand. And obviously guys were scared in a way...anything could have happened.
"[But] it was a good lesson for everybody in the world. The policy [apartheid] wasn't good. Everybody has to have the same form of rights...so maybe it was a good lesson and exercise for everybody. People all over the world were shocked to realise what was happening."
As the action on the field heated up during the tour – which stretched from July 19 to the September 12 test series finale at Eden Park – so too did the violence in the streets around match venues.
The nation was horrified at the clashes which broke out during what was intended to be a passive sit-down protest in Wellington's Molesworth St, near Police National Headquarters, in the opening month of the tour.
Protesters were subsequently prepared to unleash violence on police.
THIRTY YEARS on, despite the civil unrest – and the very real threat of violence towards the Boks – Classen said he was adamant the tour should still have gone ahead.
"We didn't want it to be stopped," he said. "We were rugby players...we cared about rugby and wanted to play rugby all around the world, we didn't care where. We just wanted to play against the best.
"We would have been very disappointed if the tour was stopped.
"In a way it would have been as though our mission was incomplete and not accomplished.
"But as far as we were concerned, we were in the hands of the New Zealand Government and the police Red Squad. We were just trying to play rugby and make the best of it."
Although the rugby action continued – with the exception of matches in Hamilton and Timaru – things off the field were difficult. Claassen understood the reasons for the security measures, but said the precautions took some of the enjoyment away from the tour experience.
"Unfortunately we weren't able to do a lot of that mingling," he said.
"Because of circumstances there wasn't a lot of time to spend with opposition teams. Before the second test in Wellington, Murray Mexted [the All Blacks' No8] phoned me. He rung me to say, `We will see each other on the field', and then told me he was trying to organise a boar-hunting trip for the two teams the day after the test.
"We were quite keen on that but unfortunately because of security issues, the police and management wouldn't allow us to go."
He revealed that on the one occasion several members of the Springbok team broke security protocol – following the opening test in Christchurch – a full-scale alert was sounded.
"A few of the guys did go out with the All Blacks in Christchurch and some of them got into a bit of trouble," Claassen said.
"When the management went around the beds, they discovered some of them weren't in bed. That did cause a bit of worry."
The team were often ferried under tight security to match venues many hours before kick-off.
Police were also so concerned that Eden Park would be over-run by rioters during or after the decisive third test – which the All Blacks won 25-22 – that an emergency escape route from the Boks' dressing room was prepared to allow for a swift and safe exit.
The Boks flew out of New Zealand the day after the series-deciding test – later described by veteran sports journalist Ian Gault as "the most thrilling, pulsating, potentially lethal rugby test of all time".
The 2-1 series loss to the All Blacks wasn't the only pain the 1981 tour inflicted on South African rugby.
The violence throughout New Zealand – which erupted in such venom in the streets around Eden Park during the third test – and the international outrage at apartheid put South Africa's sports teams firmly on the outer.
Looking back, Claassen said the decision was the right one. Pressure needed to be placed on South Africa to force change.
"From a political point of view, I think everyone realised that there should be rights for everybody," he said.
"A lot of South Africans realised there had to be change. It probably was the final nail in the coffin, the final straw, for what was happening."
Apartheid was finally abolished in 1991. The Springboks returned to the test rugby arena on August 15, 1992, when they played the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
Forty-one years after the moment that inspired him as a youngster, Claassen returned to the famous Johannesburg ground to watch the All Blacks win 27-24.
The Springbok side that day featured two survivors from the 1981 tour of New Zealand; first-five Naas Botha and centre Danie Gerber.
Claassen said it was fitting that given both the rugby rivalry between the two nations and the events of 1981, the Boks' return was against the men in black.
"It was a special occasion...it was a close game and a wonderful atmosphere," he said.
"I think it was appropriate that we played against the All Blacks for the first time when we came back officially into world rugby. It was appropriate that we played the All Blacks rather than anyone else."
RETURN TO RUGBY PARK
Thirty years on, and the "Barbed Wire Boks" will finally set foot on Hamilton's Rugby Park this year.
Many members of the 32-strong squad will visit New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup.
The 10-day trip led by the captain of the 1981 Boks, Wynand Claassen has two missions; to accompany South African world cup supporters' groups, but more importantly, as a bridge-building exercise.
The itinerary includes a visit to Waikato Stadium (formerly Rugby Park), which has a special place in the history of the notorious tour. The match against Waikato was cancelled after about 350 anti-tour protesters stormed onto the playing arena before kick-off.
"It will be very interesting going to Hamilton after what happened that day in 1981," Claassen said.
The reunion tour, which has been in the planning for more than a year, will also see the Boks return to match venues in Palmerston North, Wanganui, Rotorua and Auckland.
Emotions will be high, especially when they visit Taupo and the grave of the Air New Zealand pilot who flew the team around the country throughout the tumultuous tour.
"Tony Foley was an Air New Zealand pilot and flew us around on our charter plane," Claassen said.
"He was an exceptional guy that we all liked a lot but sadly died a few years ago.
"But we are still in touch with his daughter and his son. So we want to visit his grave and maybe have a function of sorts in Taupo."
Claassen has been in talks with former All Blacks Murray Mexted, Bill Bush and Andy Haden during the lengthy planning for the Boks' return.
"We will have a bit of a reunion in Auckland with our guys and that All Black team," Claassen said.
"It will be great to have a function with the two teams and the supporters on our tour."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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