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Batons, brawls and Boks: 40 years on since infamous tour

Batons, brawls and barbed wire. For eight weeks of 1981 New Zealand was more war zone than Godzone.

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Apartheid protesters clashed for two months while the tour took place. Source: 1 NEWS

Today marks 40 years since the start of the Springbok rugby tour, which divided the nation and sparked unprecedented civil unrest.

Protesters were determined to stop 16 games, that rugby fans were desperate to see.

John Minto, who became the face of the anti-apartheid movement, recalls the division,

"It was incredibly intense and incredibly bitter and I think it was because we were challenging the central icon of New Zealand which was the All Blacks, and we were saying human rights for black South Africans was more important than All Black rugby games."

But equally passionate rugby lovers believed politics had no place in sport.

"I loved rugby more than I hated apartheid and that's why I was for the tour and I was hoping we would beat the Springboks," said Tim Hobbs who supported the tour and went to a match at Lancaster Park.

40 years on, his views are the same. "I didn't like apartheid but I couldn't change it," said Hobbs.

But the protesters believed they could make a change, and in Hamilton they grabbed the world's attention, invading the pitch and causing the game to be cancelled.

Minto was on the pitch in Hamilton, "we were a relatively small group of people, 300 people and surrounded by 20,000 people who were chanting 'we want rugby' and we were chanting 'the whole world's watching', hoping like hell they were and of course they were.

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Minto was one of the key leaders of the anti-apartheid movement opposed to the tour. Source: 1 NEWS

"In South Africa people had got up in the middle of the night to watch this first ever televised rugby match of South Africa playing... they didn't see a game, they just saw protesters on the field and that had a massive impact on the white community."

The Muldoon Government was warned against the tour because of the disruption it would cause. Jim Bolger, who went on to become Prime Minister, was one of a few cabinet ministers who opposed the tour but wasn't vocal in his objections because of "cabinet solidarity".

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The former PM was one of the few cabinet ministers in Muldoon’s government to oppose the tour. Source: 1 NEWS

He remembers a rushed trip back to Wellington for a meeting after the Hamilton game was cancelled. He said the mood inside Government at that time was one of "determination" to continue with the tour.

"They weren't going to be bulldozed by a large group of protestors. I think that would have been more the mindset rather than, gosh should we listen again," Bolger said.

In the middle of everything was the police. John Thurston led the Blue Squad, its original task was to help escort the Springbok side but its role soon expanded.

"We were just the thin blue line getting a bit frayed in places, but that's between anarchy and peacefulness... we did what we had to do," said Thurston.

He rejected accusations the police had used excessive force.

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The leader of the Blue Squad looks back on the challenges faced by those policing the tour. Source: 1 NEWS

"What happens is you can protest peacefully and then when it gets ratcheted up, you are told you can't go past this line, and if you go past that line, then you'll be stopped going past it."

One of the bloodiest battles happened right on the doorstep of Parliament. Police used batons to stop protesters walking up Molesworth Street to the South African ambassador's home.

Police and protesters agree, had the tour gone on longer, someone would have died.

"It was just getting worse and worse, you could just feel it and sense something bad was going to happen," said Thurston.

John Minto got knocked unconscious when he was hit with a full can of beer and got a police baton to the chin. He points to the scar, “40 years old that scar.”

Looking back he said it was important for New Zealand to have gone through the unrest created by the tour, even though he was trying to stop it.

“The trauma meant that we thought a lot more about what was happening in our own country, racism in our own country… I think we are a better country for it.”