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Clash of two worlds 40 years ago today


Forty years ago today Gisborne was the scene of a protest and violence not seen before when the first match of the 1981 Springbok tour was held here.

Tension had been steadily mounting before the South African rugby team arrived on a wet Sunday afternoon to be faced with a small group of protestors.

The next two days were relatively quiet until a group broke on to Rugby Park the day before the game to spread broken glass, which had to be cleared from the field.

Then the day of the actual match deteriorated into chaos which saw numerous people injured, with two taken to hospital.

Police launched “Operation Rugby” to control the protests but it failed miserably as a group of about 300 changed their route and walked across the Park Golf Course towards Rugby Park, literally storming past a thin line of police to reach the bank on that side of the ground.

What followed was a sight that nobody hopefully will ever see here again as people in the ground and protestors clashed with fists and flying bottles, filmed by a huge international press corps.

A sad aspect of the situation was that the tour divided friends and even family members, with some scars that still linger to this day. Of course, some of the battle scars are worn with pride.

It was a clash of two worlds, conservatives who loved rugby and viewed the protestors as Commies and Lefties, against those who felt that almost anything was justified against the evils of apartheid. While there were extremists in their midst, the bulk of the protestors simply wanted to make their point.

The image of rugby suffered for years, although not for the dedicated enthusiasts. It took the successful first Rugby World Cup in 1987 to spark an image revival for the wider public.

The people who clashed on Rugby Park 40 years ago would not recognise the country that New Zealand is today. It is much more diverse than the generally bicultural scene of the 1980s, while attitudes have changed and people are much more likely to object to situations they do not agree with. Even considering what happened then, society seems more divided now.

In many ways the protestors can claim they have had the final say and the ultimate victory was theirs. Many others, however, would dispute this. There has been a rise in both social and political division lately, but nothing on the physical scale of the 1981 Springbok tour and that dramatic day in Gisborne.