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History repeats for a 'Springboks' side on an Auckland league field

General view of Carlaw Park. ARL rugby league, Winfield Cup Pre-season rugby league match between Auckland and the Warriors in January 1995. © Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga /
The Warriors playing against Auckland's provincial in a match at Carlaw Park in 1995. Photo: Andrew Cornaga /

The All Blacks and Springboks are playing in Auckland for the first time in a decade this weekend - but it won't be at Eden Park. Because of the FIFA Women's World Cup, the two most dominant teams in test rugby shift down the Southern Motorway to Mt Smart Stadium, the traditional home of the Warriors and rugby league in New Zealand.

But it's not the first time a team called 'The Springboks' have played at a rugby league venue in Auckland. Almost exactly 60 years ago, a 13-man Bok side in the familiar olive green jerseys trudged out on the famous and now dearly departed turf of Carlaw Park in Parnell.

*There is a Springboks tour that doesn't appear in any of the records kept by NZ Rugby. In July 1963, while in Sydney on their way to New Zealand, the side was greeted by 200 anti-apartheid demonstrators.

According to the Canberra Times: "When the 23 members of the South African team emerged from the Customs hall, officials foiled the student demonstrators by taking them into an airport lounge for press, radio and television interviews. The students had to wait an hour before the South Africans eventually left the terminal building to board their bus. The burly South Africans, some smiling and some frowning, walked slowly in single file along a narrow corridor made for them by uniformed police through the jeering students. As the players entered their bus, the students chanted: 'Football yes-apartheid no.'"

The team was led by the man who had scored the winning try against the All Blacks in the 1960 series, Martin Pelser. Alongside him were Dawie Ackermann, who had played in the 1956 series, and Colin Greenwood, a Springbok from 1961. They were not heading to New Zealand for another showdown at Eden Park -rather, across town to Carlaw Park. These were the rugby league Springboks, an interesting footnote in the history of the 13-man code who play a part in this story.

The 1963 Springboks rugby league team
The 1963 Springboks rugby league team. Photo: National Museum Publications of Australia

While plenty of Springboks had converted to league over the years, including the superstar winger Tom van Vollenhoven, who was by the early '60s a household name in northern England, the game had a rough birth in South Africa. Shunned by the rugby establishment and prohibited from setting up junior and schoolboy grades, it nonetheless offered a payday to union players who needed a bit of extra cash.

The 1963 tour was the first undertaken by a national side, who simply assumed the name 'Springboks' as while it was most commonly associated with the rugby side, it was used informally for every other national sporting team as well. Needless to say, this did not go down well with the South African Rugby Board.

The Australian leg of their tour had yielded three wins and five losses, including a couple of brave performances against a Kangaroos side that included the likes of Graeme Langlands, John Raper and Ken Irvine. But the main issue was the number of injuries that had been picked up along the way, so help was enlisted from the locals and a couple of Australians became 'honorary' South Africans for the trip to New Zealand (ironic, really, given what was to transpire in years to come).

Because Newtown forward Graham Wilson took the field for the match against the Kiwis in Auckland, it is not considered a test by the New Zealand Rugby League. However, they'd want it struck off their record books anyway. In a shock result, the league Springboks beat the Kiwis 4-3 in a turgid game in which the visitors successfully managed to drag their hosts down to their level.

The league Springboks also faced off against 40 anti-apartheid protesters on their arrival and have the dubious honour of being the first South African sports team to receive that treatment in New Zealand, setting the blueprint for what would occur for the next two decades.

That was, to date, the first and last time New Zealand and South Africa have played one another in rugby league. The game all but died out in the republic by the end of that decade, before staging a semi-revival in the 1990s.

* This is an excerpt from The Hundred Years' War: All Blacks vs Springboks by Jamie Wall, published in 2021 to mark the centenary of rugby's most heated and controversial rivalry.