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The 1976 All Black tour to South Africa

Andy Leslie –the 1976 All Black Captain- said after the tour: "South Africa is a country at war". The tour was a disturbing experience for the New Zealanders in many ways and the unsettling nature of the experience is without a doubt the reason for the title of Terry McLean’s book on this tour.

Terry McLean entitled his book “goodbye to glory”. An interesting title and a choice based on the fact that this tour was in many ways an end. It was a goodbye to innocence in terms of separating rugby and politics for New Zealand rugby players because there is no glory in playing rugby against a country that treats more than half of his population as substandard humans. This tour was an eye opener for the New Zealand rugby people (players and administrators); the New Zealand nation and prime minster was severly critized; incidents of violence witnessed during the tour was disturbing and generally the New Zealanders had difficulty pacifying their own consciousness after witnessing the disparity in living standards of black and white in South Africa. As the teams prepared for the first test, in Durban, it was announced that Egypt had become the 29th country to boycott the Olympic Games in Montreal –a direct protest against the All Black tour.

A month earlier, the Soweto Township erupted in violent protests against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction resulting in the shooting of hundreds of schoolchildren as police panicked in dealing with the protestors. It is incredible for most Kiwi’s to contemplate today that the tour to South Africa closely followed a day (16 June – the All Blacks played the first tour match against border on 30th of June 1976) when 176 -mostly schoolchildren- died as a result of police gunfire in Soweto. By the end of the tour some 3000 black and coloured people had been killed or injured in the escalating violence. 

McLean writes:

We 43 Kiwi’s who in one way and another were embroiled in the All Blacks’ tour -31 players, two managers, five press reporters, three press photographers, a radio commentator and a television commentator- heard only distantly and occasionally about the Montreal walk-out. Nevertheless, it was plain that many New Zealanders who supported the tour were shocked by the whole-sale surge of politics into sport.

Contemplating some of the millions of disadvantaged citizens of the country, disadvantaged because of their colour, looking at those places like Soweto and Guguletu and Mdantsane and so on where they lived, happening upon statistics as to the principal destroyer, malnutrition, of young life, comparing the glories of White Supremacy with the squalor of Black Inferiority, one inevitably asked oneself the question: are congenial relationships in sport all that one would want of the world?

So the tour was a cross-over for many New Zealanders; it was a goodbye to the idea that sporting relations can be maintained on the basis that sport and politics should be kept apart.

It was also goodbye to the mystery and glamour of the rugby rivalry between SA and NZ, for many New Zealanders. There is no glory in playing test rugby if you feel cheated by referees. In another book about the All Black Springbok rivalry (The toughest of them all by Harding and Williams) the chapter about this tour is called “Lonesome whistle blowing” with a picture of Gerald Bosch (see picture below) clearly suggesting that referees and penalties determined the outcome of the series. 

Harding writes:

There was discontent in New Zealand at the method of defeat. There was a belief that the All Blacks’ inability to win in South Africa had more to do with sinister Afrikaner forces than anything else. And those forces were steeled by the world’s increasing impatience with South Africa’s apartheid system. Rugby was the nation’s way of fighting back, and the All Blacks simply had to be beaten. Gert Bezuidenhout (the referee of the fourth test) is alleged to have declared as much. It is said that he told the All Blacks it was all very well for them to be upset, but he had to live in the country.

What an absolute pathetic excuse for poor refereeing.

The truth was that Craven, John Vorster and both the Afrikaans (Gerhard Viviers) and English speaking commentators immediately indicated that the incident in the fourth test should be a penalty try. South Africa as a nation didn’t want to win with illegal tactics. Gert Bezuidenhout with his remark left a lasting impression that South Africa as a nation was morally flawed and emotionally dependent on winning test matches.

At the post-match function –after the fourth test- Andy Leslie called for neutral referees in Test rugby, but the South African media were not slow to point out that, before the tour, the All Blacks had rejected an offer of neutral officials. It is sad that the South African referees could not live up to the vote of confidence they received from the New Zealand rugby board with this pre-tour decision.

It was an end to the glory of All Black rugby because of the disappointing results of the series from a New Zealand perspective. Compared to the 1970 All Blacks the 1976 All Blacks was disappointing, they lacked the flair and style of the 1970 All Blacks, and their tour record was disappointing. Like Brian Lochore’s 1970 side, the tourists dominated the provincial fixtures, but Leslie’s men did not invite comparable awe. A week before the first test, Western Province beat them 12-11 in a tense match that confirmed No8 Morné du Plessis as the right man to captain the Springboks (as his father Felix had done in 1949). 

Picture of Morné and his father Felix du Plessis.

The 1976 All Blacks played 24 matches, they had been beaten 6 times, a dismal record, according to Terry McLean. Their aggregate of points, 610, and of tries, 89, compared unfavorably with the totals of 687 and 135 respectively scored, also in 24 games, by Brain Lochore’s 1970 All Blacks.

Jackie McGlew the South African cricketer said of the 1976 team:

“Andy Leslie’s All Blacks remind me of our great batsman, Roy McLean. Roy was a marvel. He had tremendous power. He could tear the guts out of the other side’s attack. He was brilliant. You use to think, ‘God, how can I get this fellow out?’ But you kept at him because you knew –and he knew you knew- that he has a flaw. He wasn’t sound. His brilliance would let him down. As I see them, Leslie’s All Blacks are like Roy. Like him, they had dash and pace ad brilliance, real brilliance –much beter than anything we have. But like Roy, they weren’t sound. If I were captaining a side against them, I’d just keep on keeping on, waiting for the mistake that would let us in.”

An accurate description according to McLean as the flaw was implicit in the team chosen by the New Zealand selectors. In particular the absence of a reliable goalkicker, deficiency in the vital position of fullback, lack of strong heavy men in the pack when they knew it was the heart of South African rugby, lack of real speed in the backline, the selection of Grant Batty with a serious knee injury, no real tactician on flyhalf, absence of strong leadership on and off the field and lastly not truly appreciating the importance of a solid halfback pairing. 

Ande Leslie the 1976 All Black captain- the principles of free thinking and free speech which he and Stewart (the AB coach) encouraged turned round and bit them. Too many All Blacks on the field snarled about penalties and incompetent refereeing. At vital moments, starting with the loss against Western Province and especially noticable a week later, in the first test, the All Blacks lost focus because of getting mentally occupied with the referee.

On the last factor namely not understanding the importance of a solid halfback combination McLean writes:

The importance of halfback pairings has never been truly appreciated in New Zealand Rugby, and it is one of the grave and consistent weaknesses of the New Zealand game.

Look at the strengths of Springbok halfback partnerships against All Black teams in South Africa: In 1928, wispy Pierre de Villiers and Bennie Osler, in 1949, Fonnie du Toit and Hansie Brewis, in 1960, Lockyear and Oxlee, in 1970 Dawie de Villiers and Piet Visagie.

Great players all but, more important, great partnerships. In relation to South Africa, New Zealand has never had partnerships like these.  

McLean is thus clearly, in his post mortem of this tour, not only critical about the South African referees and conditions but also pulls no punches when it comes to how he felt about the overall peformance of the 1976 All Blacks. The New Zealand media was vocal about the team, after losses against Western Province; the first test; Northern Transvaal; Orange Free state; the third test; the close encounter against the Quagga-barbarians and the controversial lost in the fourth test. This was not appreciated by the players and some spirited exchanges took place between players and rugby journalist during the tour.

New Zealanders (players, officials and spectators) were very critical of the way South Africa played the game. The general feeling was that there is little glory in winning test matches with penalties -and the help of referees- especially if you have excellent backs like Whipp, Oosthuizen, Krantz and Germishuys.

Alex Versey the New Zealand journalist writes of this tour:

The All Blacks would have played the South Africans into the ground if they stayed with the basics and did not fell into overly ambitious frivolous backline play. In the fourth test not one Springbok loose forward could come within spitting distance of any New Zealand three quarter.

The lesson for the Springboks from this tour is that they could just as well pick four Klippies Kritzinger’s in the backline on centre and wing with all the work that the Springbok backline got in the four tests.

If the good possession established by men like Kevin de Klerk, are going to be wasted for ever with compulsive kicking by the halfbacks then South African may just as well forget about the brilliance lying dormant in men like Gerrie Germishuys, Johan Oosthuizen and Peter Whipp.

McLean writes:

The fact was, as the All Blacks as experienced as Alan Sutherland, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sid Going and Bryan Williams could testify, that the South African Rugby at provincial level which the 1976 All Blacks encountered was immeasurably stronger than which the team of 1970 had so-so effortlessly overcome.

To put the matter in perspective, and bluntly, the Big Four of South African provinces – Western Province, Orange Free State, Transvaal and Northern Transvaal – would on their form against the ’76 All Blacks beat any province in New Zealand, decisively. Transvaal would simply crush any New Zealand provincial pack.

It was true that the South African Test team was not so convincingly strong and that it was demonstrably inferior to the Springbok sides of 1970. There was no genius now, as there had been with Piet Greyling, the flanker, in 1970. Nor were today’s halfbacks, Paul Bavel and Gerald Bosch, in the same street as Dawie de Villiers and Piet Visagie. But perhaps the faults of ’76 were less in their players than in their selectors.

It was simply beyond belief that for the sake of goals the Springbok selectors would neglect a player like Gavin Cowley for so humdrum, if efficient, a machine as Bosch.

It was comforting to assume a stately air of superiority as to South Africa’s mania about kicking. But let us be thoroughly cynical. Let us ask how the All Blacks –and New Zealand- would have reacted if Bosch, or de Wet Ras, or Gavin Cowley had been playing in the uniform of the All Blacks and kicking goals like a machine?. Would the team, and the country, have reacted with outraged cries of “We don’t want to win that way”? Not bloody likely.

Perhaps the Springboks were superior man for man, but they did not play to their potential. The culture of Springbok rugby at the time, after shattering defeats of 1974, was defensive and insecure. Gerald Bosch scored 33 of his side’s 55 points in the series, but the Bok tactics were distorted as a result. They either ran the ball recklessly or withdrew into their shells. The service from the talented Bavel was erratic, and the sharp three-quarters beyond Bosch were often neglected.

On this issue and the role of Gerald Bosch in this series Chris Greyvenstein writes in his book “Springbok Saga”:

With the exception of that breathtaking first try by Germishuys which rounded off a backline thrust of sheer uncomplicated artistry, the Springboks hardly put together another worthwhile backline move for the rest of the 1976 series.

Three quarters like Peter Whipp, Johan Oosthuizen, Gerrie Germishuys and Chris Pope were neglected as either Paul Bavel, at scrumhalf, or Gerald Bosch, at flyhalf, kicked away possession. Bavel had an erratic season while Bosch lacked the delicate judgment required of an international flyhalf.

Gerald Bosch is a courageous player with safe hands, the temperament for the big occasion, and he is undisputedly the most successful place and dropkicker in South African rugby history, as a glance at the statistics will prove (this was written in 1977). His tactical kicking, particularly on a hard ground, is also excellent and it all adds up to a formidable array of qualities. Unfortunately, probably because he had been straightjacketed from the start by his phenomenal talent for kicking, Bosch seems constitutionally unable to play a balanced game.

If he had the ability to know when and how to employ his threequarters with snap and decisiveness, Gerald Raymond Bosch would have ranked with the greatest flyhalves in history.

The headings of the first and last chapters of Terry McLean’s book is called “Finish and klaar” and these chapters asserted to the same thought line namely that rugby between these two nations is finish and klaar; that New Zealand tolerance of the South Africa racial policies is finish and klaar; that the glamour of test rugby between the countries is finish and klaar because of poor refereeing; that NZ’s changes to win a series in South Africa is finish and klaar but probably most importantly that tours to South Africa is finish and klaar. There was one more lesson to be learned before the protest groups finally won their battle, but the All Blacks would not return to South Africa for 16 years.

In post mortem of the tour McLean writes that the most important contribution of this tour was undoubtedly the fact that that if was the straw that broke the camels back in terms of sporting relationships with South Africa.

McLean writes:

A profound change occurred in New Zealand’s thinking about sporting relationships with South Africa. It seemed likely (one couldn’t tell accurately) that before the end of the tour, two-thirds of the kiwi’s were saying, in effect, that as to the future ties in sport between the countries, only one phrase could be used – “Finish and klaar”.

The term “finish and klaar” derive from an incident involving Jan Ellis.

McLean explains:

When at an early stage of their tour of South Africa in the winter of 1976, the New Zealand Rugby team, the All Blacks, learned that a famous South African, Jan Ellis, had cried off from the captaincy of a multiracial side, the South African Invitation XV, which they were to play at Newlands in Cape town, they were disappointed. They knew Ellis well and admired him as one of the great flank forwards of modern times. The cause of his withdrawal, it was reported, was influenza. There was nothing much to it.

But then, only after hours after the match had been played, a sensational story appeared in the Sunday Times in Johannesburg. Ellis, it was asserted, had played refused to play with the two Coloureds and the two Blacks who by invitation had joined the 11 Whites in the team.

“Multiracial sport anywhere else in the world is OK,” Ellis was reported to have said. “I have played against and socialized with Fijians, Maori’s and all other kinds- but that was in Europe. When in Rome, you do as the Romans tell you. Here in South Africa, the same thing holds- and I am a White South African.”

Other Newspapers moved in on the story and Ellis, as his wife asserted, was “pestered” by reporters. Goaded, Ellis exploded. He had, he said, nothing more to say. With him, the situation was “finish and klaar”.

This striking phrase was memorable. Entirely South African, it meant, literally translated, “Finish – and finish”. The end of the road. Nothing more to be said. Bugger off.

It seems that McLean is alluding to the fact that this was the feeling amongst New Zealanders after the 1976 tour. A feeling of South Africa get your house in order, organize your sport along non racial lines, start playing proper rugby and stop cheating or bugger off. Typical New Zealand style he just doesn’t say it directly but suggest it with the title of his book, the headings of his chapters and with a story line about unfair treatment by referees that runs like barbwire through his book.

Now this was very interesting for me, all this heee haaaa about referees, racial issues, unhappy All Blacks, Montreal games, Jan Ellis not wanting to play with players of colour and so forth.

I was 14 year old at the time followed the tour intently but somehow missed all this off the field stuff. Maybe it is true what Williams and Harding says: “The Afrikaners escaped the reality of the situation by watching rugby.” Maybe we were just so blaze with all the killing, shooting and constant fighting that we just stopped seeing it.