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Today, 44 years ago, the New Zealand All Blacks played the Proteas, the national rugby team of the South African Rugby Football Federation, at Cape Town’s Goodwood Show Grounds. This game took place three weeks after the Soweto Uprising, at a time that mass events in Black communities were still banned. In addition, this was only the third time that the Proteas, the representative team of a non-white rugby body, were set to play against overseas opposition. Having played England (1972), British Lions (1974), this occasion marked the first time for any black representative team to play the famous New Zealand All Blacks. It also took place against the background of a global campaign to isolate apartheid sport. The New Zealand visitors were therefore under immense pressure to abandon the tour or to face a boycott of African countries at the scheduled Olympic Games that was to take place in Montreal, Canada.[1]


Errol-Tobias-Hennie-Shields-John-Noble-Credit-SARFB

The hosting of the game was also of great political importance for the South African Rugby Football Board, the hosts of Andy Leslie’s team. In facing  the international boycott against South African sports teams in a number of sports, this game and the one scheduled three weeks later against the Leopards, the representative team of the all-black South African African Rugby Football Board (SAARFB) , was meant to display the hosts commitment to integrated sport. More sinister, however, was the objective of side-stepping the increased isolation of local all-white teams.

Given the historical and political significance of the game, the news media took an early interest in it.  The Cape Herald in its match preview the day before the match stated it upfront: “there can be very little hope of a Protea victory”. They based their assessment on the results of previous Protea matches against international opposition and observed that “there has been no noticeable improvement in the standard of their rugby” which could be blamed on “the infrequency of these matches”. The paper also criticised the National Party government’s multi-national policy under which this game was to be played. It noted: “It remains to be seen whether the rugby powers can and will introduce mixed rugby at lower than ‘multinational’ or ‘invitational’ level.”[2] The Cape Times in turn noted that the Proteas were “champing at the bit at their army training headquarters at Faure, are ready to run themselves into the ground.” Further, noted reporter Neville Leck: “Nobody, including Mr. Loriston himself, expects the Proteas to pull off a win in this, their first-ever meeting with the All Blacks. They are too short of muscle, pace, know-how and finesse to have any hope of beating a side that includes Leslie, Going, Kevin Eveleigh, Lawrie Knight, Laurie Mains and Bill Osborne”. The SARFF, however, committed to “give Leslie and his men a game to remember.”[3]

The teams for this historic match were:

Protea-All Blacks Match -Credit McLook Collection

All Blacks: Laurie Mains; Terry Mitchell; Bill Osborne; Lynn Jaffray; Neil Purvis; Doug Bruce; Sid Going; Kerry Tanner; Graeme Crossman; Billy Bush; Kevin Eveleigh; Gary Seear; Frank Oliver; Lawrie Knight; Andy Leslie (Captain).

Proteas: Ronnie Louw; John Noble; Charles Williams; Hennie Shields; Eddie Gillion; John Stubbs; Attie Lategan; Turkey Shields; Cisco Jooste; Tom Pieterson; Hannes Meyer; Louis Paulse; Piet Boonzaaier; Randy Marinus; Jack Juries (captain).

The match played on a “rain-soaked” ground, by all accounts, was a fiery one and one that elicited strongly varying opinions from the media present.  Neville Leck, while describing the All Black performance in their 25-3 victory as having “hit pay-dirt”, mediocre, and “unimpressive”, reported:

“Jack Juries and his lion-hearted Proteas, on the other hand, produced what was easily their most impressive performance against an overseas touring team. They were quick, alert and fleet-footed, no one more so than their wings, Eddie Gillion and John Noble and centre Charles Williams. They tackled like kamikaze pilots-to the man. And they surged about the field like angry yellow bees, descending in swarms on any All-Black who dared to pouch the ball, put his head down and run.” Further: “what must have been very gratifying for coach Dougie Dyers was the strides they have made technically. They ran and passed with more confidence than I have ever seen them do and the statistics tell the story of the improvement they have made upfront, in the boiler room.”[4]

This lofty praise was, however, not shared by Leck’s colleague, Warrick Spicer who in the same edition of the Cape Times wrote:

“All Blacks captain Andy Leslie played it cool yesterday in the match against the Coloured Proteas. It was his cooling influence that prevented the rugby match erupting into violence. Several of the All Blacks became incensed with the jersey holding, offside play and late tackles indulged in freely by the Coloured player but Leslie managed to keep them cool.” He admitted, however, that “there was nothing terribly vindictive with the play of the Proteas. It was simply that when they had the scent of the ball they became oblivious to anything else.”[5]

Ted Doman of the Cape Herald fully disagreed with his newspaper colleagues. In a very blunt denunciation of the match performance of the local team he wrote:

“The Proteas showed a lack of the knowledge of the laws of rugby when they lost to the All Blacks last week. It was an ignorance which even all the mealy- mouthed paternalism of some commentators could not conceal.

Further, he observed: “To say that the Proteas have improved tremendously must be the overstatement of the year. If in fact this is true, they must have been pretty weak before. The fact remains that no team of 15 players can improve by facing international opposition once a year.”[6]

This notwithstanding, most of the players involved went on to establish their own indelible mark on South African rugby.

Endnotes:

[1] Terry McLean, Goodbye to Glory: The 1976 All Black Tour of South Africa. AH & AW Reed, 1976.

[2] Anon., “Proteas are no better”, Cape Herald, 6 July 1976.

[3] Neville Leck, “Proteas ready for hard game”, Cape Times, 7 July 1976.

[4] Neville Leck, “High-voltage Mains saves Kiwi faces”, Cape Times, 8 July 1976.

[5] Warwick Spicer, “Andy Leslie cools off a hot game”, Cape Times, 8 July 1976.

[6] Ted Doman, “Proteas showed ignorance all the way”, Cape Herald, 13 July 1976.

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