Why I turned down the All Blacks: Meet NZ Rugby's original activist

New Zealand's Bob Burgess (left) looks to pass the ball as he is tackled in a match against the...
New Zealand's Bob Burgess (left) looks to pass the ball as he is tackled in a match against the Barbarians. Photo: S&G/PA Images via Getty Images
Gifted first five-eighths Bob Burgess was a man out of time as an All Black. A supremely gifted runner and passer in an era when the boot was the key part of a No10's armoury, Burgess' international career never scaled the heights it could have.

As an emblem of New Zealand's increasing discomfort about the cosy relationship between New Zealand rugby and South Africa's apartheid government, however, Burgess was the right man for the times.

In 1970, he refused an All Blacks trial ahead of the tour to South Africa, and by 1981, he was on the frontline of the anti-tour protest movement.

For that reason, the seven-test All Black has been given the honour of opening Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition on Thursday night.

Pointedly, it is being hosted at Eden Park, the ground that was surrounded by pitched battles between protesters and police before the third test of that fateful tour.

"It was a huge honour to be asked and something I was very happy to do," Burgess said from Wellington.

To prepare, he has been reconnecting with South Africa's past, and his role in trying to highlight apartheid's horrors, not that many of his team-mates wanted to hear it.

When pointed out to Burgess just how few All Blacks made a stand against sporting contact with South Africa — George Nepia, Ken Gray, himself, Sandy McNicol, Bruce Robertson and Graham Mourie are a small club — he points to the "easy refrain" rugby players hid behind: sport and politics shouldn't mix.

It was a notion he viewed with contempt.

"It's a matter of morality," he said. "In that regard, you can't separate one aspect of your life from the others.

"Being a rugby player in New Zealand, it put me in a good position to come out and say, 'This [regime] is wrong.' We were in a unique position to make a stand."

Why then did so few do so?

'I think it was the excitement of the rivalry between South Africa and New Zealand. They wanted to be part of something that might have represented the pinnacle of their rugby careers. It might have been the pinnacle of mine, too, but I felt much more comfortable saying no."

Burgess' activism was forged early. The son of church elders, Burgess was raised with an inherent sense of social justice. Growing up in provincial New Zealand — Taranaki and Manawatu mainly — his love of rugby ran deep.

In 1965, those two things were set on a collision course. The touring Springboks came to Palmerston North Boys' High early in their 24-match tour and links were established between the players of the 1st XV, of which Burgess was a member, and the tourists. The boys would collect clippings and include them in letters to the Springboks' families in South Africa.

"I remember feeling uneasy about it even back then. It seemed we were supporting not just them and their families, but their system of government," Burgess recalled.

Later that year, he had a robust argument with his uncle while staying on his North Otago farm, when he took the position that the then-NZRFU's contact with South African rugby was giving more than tacit support for the apartheid regime.

Five years later, he would get a chance to put his morals where his mouth was.

Having left Massey University to take a teaching job in Invercargill, Burgess impressed enough in his short time that Southland selector Jack Borland made a trip to his flat to inform him the union was nominating him for the All Blacks trial ahead of the 1970 tour to South Africa.

"I said no. Jack was rather taken aback. I don't think he'd come across that before in rugby," Burgess said.

Not only did he make himself unavailable, he doubled down by making his decision public, including his reasons why.

Burgess received a lot of correspondence, including some telling him to keep politics out of sport — "I was 21 and impervious to criticism" — but the rest was overwhelmingly positive, including from fellow players.

He also received letters from Care (Citizens Association for Racial Equality) and the fledgling Hart (Halt All Racist Tours).

It didn't, however, hurt his All Blacks prospects. A year later, he'd start at first-five against the Lions, though not everyone was convinced.

New Zealand Herald doyen TP McLean described his qualifications to drive the All Blacks backline as dubious, while others inferred he was having his cake and eating it, too.

By 1973, his seven-test career was over, but he followed that with a stint playing in Lyon, before his fragile body gave way for good.

He instead devoured literature and was particularly influenced by Peter Hain's Don't Play with Apartheid and Joel Carlson's No Neutral Ground.

By 1981, he was front and centre in the anti-tour movement.

He narrowly failed to have Massey, one of the largest rugby clubs in the country, officially oppose the tour, and his outspokenness was drawing attention.

"I did get threatening phone calls and letters. I had people from within the sport telling me how naïve I was," he recalled.

With the National government and police firmly pro-tour, Burgess said the level of resistance and conflict was frightening. As a personal protest, he withdrew from his coaching role at Massey and from the sport altogether.

He would neither attend nor watch another game of rugby for 13 years. His readmittance to the sport came in 1994, when he watched the Springboks, representing a newly democratic South Africa, play his old province Manawatu.

Burgess, 70, would later smile when told that Nelson Mandela described news of the 1981 protests as like the sun coming out in his Robben Island cell.

Ultimately, Burgess knew, he had ended up on the right side of history.

• Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition, Eden Park, April 13-August 4

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