RWC 2015 - South Africa vs New Zealand: An international rivalry as deep and intense as any in world sport

Twin giants of rugby have a history of epoch-making battles

Chris Hewett
Friday 23 October 2015 17:26 BST
(Getty Images)

New Zealand and South Africa, the twin magnetic poles of the union game, have met 43 times in the decade and a half since the abandonment of traditional touring at the start of the professional era, but their rivalry – perhaps the most intense to be found anywhere in international sport – is rooted in the 47 pitched battles fought over the previous three-quarters of a century: matches that held the two rugby communities in thrall and occasionally split them asunder.

The Springboks prevailed only once in a series on All Black soil, way back in 1937 – the age of Gerry Brand and Danie Craven, of the tempestuous Boy Louw and the mighty Ferdie Bergh. As if in holy symmetry, the New Zealanders won only a single rubber on South African soil, at their sixth and final attempt in 1996. The deed was done, under the most extreme pressure, at the great rugby fastness of Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. At the final whistle, silver-ferned types as hard-bitten as Sean Fitzpatrick and Michael Jones lay prostrate, too tired to realise the weight of history had been lifted from them.

While the first official international between the countries was not played until 1921, at Carisbrook in Dunedin, the fires were first lit during an Inter-Services tournament in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Thousands of troops from what were then called the dominions were hanging around in England, awaiting their homeward-bound boats, and the chance of some organised thud and blunder was too tempting to resist. The New Zealand Services side beat the South Africans 14-5. More importantly, both teams featured players who would meet again in the inaugural Test a couple of years later.

By winning in New Zealand in ’37 under the captaincy of the Natal lock Philip Nel, who threw his boots in the ocean on the return voyage in the most symbolic of all endings to a rugby career, the Springboks established themselves as world champions, fully half a century before the title would be contested on a tournament basis. Their supremacy went unchallenged until 1956, when they returned to All Black territory and lost three Tests out of four.

New Zealanders who were not born when Don Clarke, Kevin Skinner, Peter Jones and the rest of the hometown legends were squaring up to the South Africans consider that series a defining moment in the country’s social history. It was just a little alarming, too. As the writer John Reason argued many moons later, the rugby was so violent the union code would have had an impossible case to answer had the action been televised live.

Sadly, the violence was of a different magnitude altogether in 1981, when New Zealand split in two on the ethics of hosting a team bearing the mark of Cain – or, to be strictly accurate, the stain of apartheid. The rioting was unprecedented in its ferocity, the divisions ran too deep for healing. The All Black captain Graham Mourie refused to play on grounds of conscience and there may never have been a more courageous stand in the annals of the game. When the Boks left for home – when the barbed wire surrounding the match venues was removed and the police resumed their normal duties – Mourie was recalled to the team as skipper. It was a moment to savour.

A decade or so later, the South Africans were formally readmitted to the global sporting community. The game had changed significantly since the politically charged tours of the 1960s and 1970s, but the depth of the rivalry remained as unfathomable as ever.

If the players were no longer drawn from the farmlands of both countries, they were still made of the same metal: hard, ruthless, profoundly competitive sorts for whom rugby was the ultimate expression of nationhood. Maybe even manhood.

New Zealand and South Africa, South Africa and New Zealand. Apart from the odd spell of Australian supremacy and the great flowering of British & Irish Lions rugby in the early 1970s, one or other of them has always been considered the best of the best. If rugby is a game of blood, sweat and tears, the story of this feud has been written in all three.


Springboks v All Blacks - World Cup meetings

S Africa 15 N Zealand 12, Final, Johannesburg, 1995

Nelson Mandela, Francois Pienaar, Jonah Lomu, a waitress called Suzy… this game had quite a cast. New Zealand had swept all before them but they could not find a way through the South African barricades when it mattered. Later, they claimed to have been suffering from food poisoning, suggesting that an untraceable member of the hotel staff had nobbled them.

S Africa 22 N Zealand 18, 3rd-place play-off, Cardiff, 1999

Only this week, the current All Black coach, Steve Hansen, mentioned “that other game” – a dismissive reference to the match for losing semi-finalists. Breyton Paulse (pictured above), one of rugby’s creative spirits, perked up a flat occasion by scoring the only try midway through the second quarter. Henry Honiball and Percy Montgomery did the rest with the boot.

N Zealand 29 S Africa 9, Q-F, Melbourne, 2003

The Boks have been trying for a dozen years to forget their heaviest World Cup defeat. Low on morale and conciliatory up front, they allowed Carlos Spencer, the All Black outside-half, to run the show and, by the time he put Joe Rokocoko in for New Zealand’s third try with the most audacious of passes, the outcome was inevitable.

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