Rugby Union: Rugby in crisis / Test of more than a game: John Carlin in Johannesburg explains why the sport arouses such passion in its white followers

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THE decision in 1834 by the British colonial government to abolish slavery in the Cape was more than the majority of Afrikaners living there could stomach. So they set off north on the Great Trek, enduring years of war and privation before eventually establishing their Boer republic in the Transvaal.

Some Afrikaners, lacking the fanaticism and the dour resolve of the pilgrims, stayed behind and it is their descendants who will be generating the passion at this afternoon's rugby match between South Africa and Australia at Cape Town's Newlands stadium - the first official international between the two countries for over 20 years.

There will be a far higher contingent of English-speaking South Africans than were present at the Ellis Park debacle last week for the match against New Zealand.

For Cape Town, after Johannesburg and Pretoria, is like another country. Two hours flight away, the mood - if you don't scratch the surface too hard - is Mediterranean.

All of which suggests that this time around the behaviour of the crowd will be rather more seemly than it was last weekend, less destructive of the imperative for racial reconciliation the more enlightened politicians consider to be critical to the nation's future.

After the initial threat, by the African National Congress, to call off today's match and the planned rugby tours by South Africa to France and Britain later this year, the final ANC decision, on Wednesday, to allow the game to go ahead should have a mollifying effect. They are not asking for much: simply for the crowd to refrain from singing 'Die Stem' - the anthem of white South Africa - and to observe a minute's silence for the township dead. Official 'Peace and Democracy' banners in the stadium would also be welcome.

That is the price the ANC had exacted - and both the rugby authorities and the crowd failed to deliver last week - in return for having granted the white population the best of all possible gifts. For, as any Afrikaner will tell you, a match against the All Blacks has at least as much spiritual significance as high mass for the Pope.

Politically crude as most of the 70,000 people at Ellis Park would have been, it could have been lost on few that without Nelson Mandela's generous intervention the match would not have taken place. The response, as it turned out, could not have been more churlish.

The flavour of what was to come inside the stadium was provided outside, two hours before kick-off, by a dozen caricature Afrikaners, standing on a corner like prop-forwards run to fat, bellowing, 'Fok die ANC]'

Inside, two black women, inexplicably, were spotted among the crowd. One, who was wearing an All Blacks cap, strove hard to contain her delight whenever New Zealand scored. Another, when it was put to her that 98 per cent of the audience wanted to keep 'the old South Africa', vigorously disagreed. 'It's 99 per cent,' she said.

The scene at Ellis Park on Saturday was so utterly unreconstructed, so untouched by the 'new South Africa', that the year could have been 1960. But there was one important difference, for which the most eminent spectator, F W de Klerk, deserves the credit. Blacks were not penned into special enclosures.

The response of de Klerk's National Party was to applaud the afternoon's proceedings as an expression of 'peaceful mass action'. The ANC's was angry. Steve Tshwete, the senior ANC official who publicly embraced the South African cricket captain, Kepler Wessels, after his team had beaten Australia in the World Cup, was especially outraged. It is he, more than any other individual, who has plotted South Africa's return to international sport. 'The white community is not prepared to accept the hand of reconciliation,' he said. 'All we get in return is abuse and insults.'

If the crowd today manage to restrain the impulse to abuse and insult, it will be more out of pragmatism than genuine remorse. Resentment at the perception that the blacks have hijacked whites' national religion runs deep and the ANC will have to live with a promised display of South African flags - stocks of which have run out in Cape Town this week.

If the unexpected happens and their feelings run riot, the crowd will do so in the knowledge - assuming the Wallabies stay on the pitch - that this will be the last international rugby match featuring their team they will be watching for a very long time.

(Photograph omitted)