The flour-bomb Test: When apartheid, protest and rugby mixed in New Zealand

This Saturday marks the 35th anniversary of a Test between New Zealand and South Africa in Auckland that saw a determined protest against apartheid.

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As the All Blacks and Springboks prepare to meet in Christchurch on Saturday, this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the most bizarre clash between the old rivals, the so-called “flour-bomb Test” of 1981.

During the match, anti-apartheid protesters in a light plane repeatedly buzzed Auckland’s Eden Park, dropping flour-filled paper bags on players and spectators.

The teams agreed to proceed with the match, despite All Blacks prop Gary Knight being felled by one of the projectiles and violent clashes between police and demonstrators outside the ground.

“We caught them completely off-guard,” John Minto, one of the protest organisers, said of the aerial escapade.

“The police knew we were going to turn out in numbers at Eden Park and had turned the streets around the ground into a fortress, with barbed wire and barricades.

“But when the plane came over there was nothing they could do. Watching on the ground we were elated, it was so dramatic and inspiring.”

The context for the stunt was the most bitterly divisive rugby tour in New Zealand’s history, featuring a visiting Springbok team that many viewed as the standard-bearer for South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.

The conservative government and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union were determined the tour would proceed, arguing politics and sport should not mix.

It was a stance many Kiwis passionately disagreed with.

Even All Blacks captain Graham Mourie made himself unavailable for selection, later saying “you’ve got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror”.

Mourie received hate mail over his decision and said members of his own family regarded him as an “idiot”.

The divisions were even more stark on the streets of New Zealand, where the tour was overshadowed by bloody protests unprecedented in the normally peaceful nation.

A match against Waikato in Hamilton had to be cancelled after demonstrators invaded the pitch, prompting anti-riot police to adopt increasingly brutal tactics.

They staged baton charges on crowds outside parliament in Wellington in what became known as “The Battle of Molesworth Street”.

In response, protesters donned motorcycle helmets and makeshift body armour, arming themselves with clubs and bats.

“It was an extremely tense atmosphere around the country,” Minto told AFP. “I’ve no doubt that if the tour had gone on for a week or two longer then we would have seen people killed.”

For the Eden Park Test on September 12, more than 2,100 police – about 40 per cent of the entire national force – were deployed in Auckland.

It was the final match of the tour and Minto said activists hoped to force its cancellation.

They failed, and New Zealand eventually prevailed 25-22 to take the Test series 2-1.

The numbers off the field were 67 protestors hospitalised, hundreds more facing charges and a six-month jail term for Marx Jones, the pilot who flew the flour-bomb mission in a single-engine Cessna.

“We lost the battle, in the sense that the game went ahead,” Minto said.

“But we won the war because the Springboks didn’t play another major rugby-playing nation until 1992 after apartheid was abandoned.”

The veteran protester proudly recalls how Nelson Mandela said the New Zealand demonstrations provided a morale boost to his movement, particularly when the Hamilton game was cancelled.

“He said when they found out about it, all the prisoners of Robben Island grabbed the bars of their cell doors and they rattled them right around the prison.

“He said it was like the sun came out.”

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