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The years roll by, like floats in a parade.

Some years resonate for centuries because of the events that shaped them. Think about the significance of 1914, 1929, 1939, 1945 and 1967. And, especially for many New Zealanders, how about 1981?

Forty years ago, the South African rugby team came to New Zealand following an ill-advised invitation from then National prime minister Robert Muldoon.

It happened to be an election year and Mr Muldoon was egregiously punting on support from the heartland for the Springbok tour that winter to help out at the ballot box a few months later.

However, it came at a time of rapidly rising disgust and opposition to South Africa’s abhorrent system of apartheid, and international condemnation and boycotts of New Zealand because of our continuing sporting links with that nation.

As a result, like other years in that list above, 1981 became something akin to a war. Huge rifts opened up between friends and families, workplaces and communities, and acts of violence many thought not possible in this small nation shocked and angered us.

The Red Squad, the Blue Squad, the brutal use of long batons and truncheons, protesters in the vanguard wearing motorcycle helmets — these words and images became inured in our consciousness that winter and, for many of those on either side of the front lines, will still be fuelling nightmares today.

There were good people on both sides. And bad too, whether pro or anti the tour, among the riot squad or within the body of the protest. One wonders how many might now think back and shudder, or lose sleep, over how aggressively they attacked ‘‘the enemy’’, how they might have carried out their duties and beliefs with excessive force — and drawn blood, and broken the limbs, and shattered the innocence of their fellow Kiwis.

As many have said since, it was a miracle nobody was killed.

It was a questionable decision, highly questionable, to allow the tour to go ahead. Little heed was taken by Mr Muldoon of the words of predecessor Norman Kirk, who in April 1973 cancelled a South African tour, following his conscience and police advice that if the tour proceeded it would lead to ‘‘the greatest eruption of violence this country has ever known’’.

Mr Muldoon only had to wait another eight years for that.

Who can forget the surreal sight of All Blacks prop Gary Knight being hit by a flour bomb jettisoned from a light plane making bombing runs on Eden Park in the final test match? Or the frenzied, frightening riots taking place outside the ground that day and on many other match days.

New Zealand’s love affair with rugby runs really deep, but is a game worth all that?

This past week we have seen two more questionable rugby decisions — giving the Australian team an exemption to come here quarantine-free for the Bledisloe Cup match and New Zealand Rugby’s decision to align itself with the wrong side of history and choose a large global petrochemical company, INEOS, as its chief sponsor.

The first was a political decision, Acting Covid-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall admitted to RNZ. There are wildly varying estimates of how much money it might generate for the economy. But businesses would give their eye teeth to receive such treatment.

The INEOS sponsorship is an appalling look for a country which should be doing more to minimise its emissions and has led to the coining of a new name for the New Zealand team, the Oil Blacks.

Forty years on from the tour, rugby still seems able to operate under its own set of rules in a way others can only dream of.

It would be nice to think, four decades on, things have changed. But have they?


The shattering of small town innocence was greatest on the Coast, to which the South Africans were whisked for 'safe' R&R, within the quiet fastnesses of Coast hospitality.

The protest March was led by a priest, drawing insult from the anti Catholic mob. Neighbour insulted neighbour.

Elsewhere, St John's in Napier, parish of the Minto family, was set alight.


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