'Both countries learnt a lot' – Springbok remembers 1981 tour 40 years on

Eden Park, regarded as the All Blacks' fortress for their dominant record there, actually looked like one on September 12, 1981. Flares smoked out the sidelines and flour bombs fell from a light plane buzzing the ground.

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The third Test of the 1981 capped two months of civil unrest and division that left its mark on this country and South Africa. Source: 1 NEWS

The third Test capped two months of civil unrest and division over the controversial Springbok rugby tour from apartheid South Africa.

The former Springbok captain Wynand Claassen remembers the game well.

"That was bizarre. When you ran on to the field and that small plane circling, you know, I don't know how many times, somebody said about 110 times," Claassen said from his home in Pretoria.

But this was the series decider and the Springboks had a job to do.

"We couldn't bother about the plane because the All Blacks are a handful, so we've got to worry about the All Blacks and trying to win the Test," he said.

Keith Quinn commentated on the series. He said he found the Auckland match distressing as he watched the plane buzz the ground from the commentary box.

"My voice in the commentary is downbeat. It's not an upbeat commentary voice because I was anxious, if not scared, in some parts of that game," he said.

He also didn't agree with the tour going ahead and said so at the time. Consequently, the sports commentator was called "the enemy of rugby" by a top New Zealand rugby official.

"I had been to South Africa in the 1976 tour and when I came home, I went on TV and said I would never go back to that place again."

Senior All Blacks from the 1981 tour declined or weren't available for interviews, not unlike 40 years ago.

"We didn't hear much from the All Blacks on that tour. They were well looked after and there was a distance created," Quinn said.

He said he's since spoken to some All Blacks about 1981.

"I think most of them were in favour of the tour."

The final match was narrowly won by the All Blacks, but it was overshadowed by the violence on the streets outside Eden Park.

It was the climax of weeks of demonstrations involving 150,000 people across 28 centres. Claassen said the Boks were not prepared for that level of opposition to the tour.

He recalled a news conference in Gisborne where he and other South African rugby officials got “hammered” with "not one rugby question".

He said he thought they should have handled it differently.

"We should have been open about South Africa and the problems we had," he said.

The protests also highlighted problems in New Zealand. Donna Awatere Huata was a member of the Patu squad, an anti-tour group led by Māori activists that aimed to put the spotlight on racism at home.

"And to that end we were partly successful. Not totally but we did make some gains," said Awatere Huata.

She said gains were made shortly after the tour in education and the police, but "by and large they were very small”.

"The legacy of the tour is that we have a long way to go. We made a minor dent in the colonial attitudes but what we are left with now is still a colonial bureaucracy, a colonial government that still hasn't made the changes that need to be made to honour the Treaty," she said.

In South Africa, the 1981 protests put the pressure on for political change. Claassen said it marked the "beginning of the end" of apartheid.

He sees the tour as a part of history.

“It’s a strange way of looking at it, but we were. Both teams, both countries… I think both countries learnt a lot from each other.”