Monday, May 25, 2009

The 1956 Springboks

Yesterday I watched the replay of the rugby match in Pretoria between the Bulls and Crusaders. The roar and delight of the local crowd as their team won brought back memories. Anne finds it difficult to understand how I can follow such a, in her words, brutal game. Quite simply, I grew up with it. Even during the war years scratch teams played during the winter months representing the four clubs that made up the Banks Peninsula sub-union. Everybody turned up to watch.

After the war my stepfather would drive us through to Lancaster Park to see a Test or a Canterbury game. We’d get there early to get a good patch on the jammed embankment. During my university years I was a spectator not just for provincial but often ordinary club matches as well.

It was a great Ranfurly Shield era. There was a famous match when Otago were leading 9 – 6 with the clock showing full time when Mayo crashed over to score an equalising try. He couldn’t take the kick, the crowd invaded the field. I was doing wheelies on my bike riding away. A traffic cop grinned and gave me a thumbs up as he drove past.

The Springbok tour dominated the 1956 winter. Everyone in my world - Little River farmers, Rolleston House students, Varsity girls, the St Andrews congregation - followed the tour avidly. It is hard now to explain the primitive fervour with which we wanted the '56 'Boks humbled.

It must be remembered we had never won a series. Legend had it that New Zealand outplayed them on the veldt in 1949, but biased refs and their big kicker, Geffin, unfairly took that series from us. This "we wuz robbed" theory fed a paranoia. Rugby, a medium of egalitarian nationalism, proved tribal. Throughout the winter we argued, debated, and boasted about the tour and its personalities. We were a small country but by God we could beat these neo-Fascists from a land which did not accept the equality of men.

Delighted I watched Canterbury win in the provincial match. But the test series was what counted. The first test was narrowly won, but the second was lost. For the third test at Lancaster Park the selectors made several changes; including dropping two of our local heroes. Kevin Skinner, a one-time boxer, was brought out of retirement to strengthen the front-row.

The first time the new full-back Don Clarke kicked the ball it went seventy yards, a towering touchfinder. The crowd cheered, old loyalties quickly forgotten - a new champion had arrived. Most people on the bank claimed to have seen how Skinner settled the two 'Bok props in turn. Like the ref I didn't; Skinner knew how to do his duty. Whatever happened both players in turn needed ambulance attention. All around us the talk was the same - the 'Boks bent the rules, our bloke straightened them out. Desperate times, desperate measures.

New Zealand established an eleven point lead thanks to three massive Clarke kicks, two penalties and a conversion of a try. Then the 'Boks struck back - two tries, magnificently executed, but the crowd around me were in no mood to acknowledge that. High tension. A group of nearby back-country youths had been swigging whisky all day. They'd brought a rubber hose to urinate through - there was no possibility of getting out of the crush to go to the loos. In the excitement one forgot to attach his hose. As the match-winning try for New Zealand happened he was wailing, "I've pissed my pants". His mates were supporting him upright when a further try sealed the game. We had won.

Later back at the hostel we replayed the game, in fact we relived it for months, reflected renown. A few days later the whole hostel listened to the radio as we wrapped up the series at Eden Park. Danie Craven's statement, "It's all yours New Zealand" saw the beginning of an all-night impromptu hostel party. "Did you hear what Jones said?" Caught by surprise, National Radio relayed the large forward's oath across the country.

Readers might express surprise at this deification of these torrid and intimidatory exchanges. It would be less than honest to my account, as well as the actual facts. Rugby entered the soul of most young men of my generation. If I’d been told then that in later life I would march against a tour I wouldn’t have believed it. Nelson Mandela gave me licence to renew my interest.

Sport (armchair though now it is for me), still attracts me. Not the hype - in fact that irritates - but the drama. Unlike the rituals of the theatre - Othello will suffocate Desdemona, Oedepius will kill his father - the appeal of sport is its unpredictability, a bounce of the ball, a pass not made, a stumping chance taken, the luck of the toss - something spectacular or just plain trivial can win or lose a match.

This drama is tied to parochialism or nationalism, which is both good and bad. Part of the crowd in Edinburgh at the 1970 Commonwealth Games I was on my feet shouting encouragement to Sylvia Potts when she tripped inches from the tape, an event in its own way as cathartic as Lear staggering in with Cordelia's corpse in his arms. I have rarely felt more a New Zealander.

An appeal of sports to us is an underlying sense of equality. Both sides have an equal number of players, fifteen, thirteen, eleven, nine, four. The playing field is in theory equal. There is a worrying trend though. If the All Blacks lose, there are instant demands for the coach to be sacked and new blood appointed.

Or the medal count is down at the Olympics and there’s an outcry. The simple fact is we are small country. Other people perform well at this particular gathering. Unpredictability which makes sport so interesting is relegated to second place now – winning is all that matters. The gold medal tally has become the yardstick rather than the ideal of taking part.

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