The 100th test between New Zealand and South Africa will be played in Dunedin in August. Jim Kayes looks at the history between the two teams and the historic series win in South Africa in 1996.
There was a time when they didn’t matter. When others, like Australia, were of more importance.
Yet, almost like an addiction, they were always there, lurking in the background of our consciousness, a goliath we knew would one day return.
South Africa’s exclusion from sport due to it’s racist Apartheid regime meant the Springboks were lost to a generation of All Blacks fans.
Tales of grown men weeping over their beers after another series defeat in South Africa were kodak distant, a photo curled in the sun and yellowed in time.
For 11 years they sat on the sidelines and after the violent protests against the 1981 tour to New Zealand, few missed them.
Afterall, this was the country that discouraged Māori from touring with the All Blacks and (with the embarrassing support of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union) forced some, including Samoan Sir Bryan Willliams, to visit as ‘honorary whites’.
But the Springboks have always been the players All Blacks measure themselves against, a side that can consistently match the All Blacks’ physicality, intensity and brutality.
France do it on occasion, England are able to wear the All Blacks down with their big forwards, and for a while the Wallabies had a pack to take seriously when John Eales was playing.
But South Africa turn out quality forward packs like New Zealand produces open side flankers.
“They’re similar to the All Blacks in that they always want to dominate you,” says 79-test All Blacks lock Ian Jones. “They love the game, they love the rivalry and they know that to be the best you have to beat the All Blacks, just as we know that to be the best we have to beat South Africa.”
That passion for beating South Africa outstrips any other country, driven perhaps by the defeats, many of which the All Blacks and their fans felt were unjust.
In the days of non-neutral referees, winning in South Africa was especially tough.
The All Blacks lost all four tests in South Africa in 1949, lost 2-1 in 1960 (with a test drawn) and 3-1 in 1970 and 1976. The All Blacks fared better at home with the historic 1956 series win followed by another in 1965 and again in 1981.
But winning in South Africa was still a veld too far.
That began to change when the Springboks returned from their political exile and the All Blacks won the one-off ‘reunification’ test in 1992 then beat South Africa 2-0 in a three test series in New Zealand two years later, with the third test drawn.
After the 1995 World Cup, and that final between the great rugby foes, the scene was set for the All Blacks to have yet another crack at winning a series in South Africa.
1996 was the first year of professionalism and the advent of the Tri-Nations which the All Blacks won with wins against Australia in Wellington and Brisbane, and against South Africa in Christchurch and Cape Town.
But it was the test series in South Africa that truly mattered.
“We knew the history,” Jones says, “John Hart had drilled that into us.”
The canny coach had also convinced New Zealand Rugby to let him take a swollen squad of 36 (unusual at the time).
“I knew that for us to have a show of winning the three-test series, we in effect had to have two squads, one of the midweek matches and one for the tests,” Hart told author Ron Palenski in his book, Century in Black.
He wrote a paper to the union and chairman Richie Guy was horrified. His main concerns were practical - would it mean two buses and a split squad - and financial as professionalism meant extra players had to be paid.
But Hart convinced Guy the added players were crucial to success as it would keep the test team fresh.
Jones agrees and adds that consistency of selection was also important - though he and Hart both admit changes should have been made for the third test of the series, which a tired All Blacks team lost.
Another key to the 2-1 series victory was neutral referees and Jones heaped praise on Hart and manager Mike Banks’ organisation of the tour.
“We had a good team from ‘95 and some great players but the key to our success in ‘96 was John Hart’s planning and organisation.”
The All Blacks went into the three test series having beaten South Africa twice, including in Cape Town in what Jones says was “one hell of a test”.
It set the scene for the series and the All Blacks knew they had to win in Durban to give themselves a decent shot as the second and third tests were at altitude, in Pretoria and Johannesburg.
“We didn’t want to go to Johannesburg one-all so we knew we had to win in Durban and back that up in Pretoria.”
They did that with a 23-19 win at Kings Park followed by a 33-26 victory at Loftus Versfeld, a match that saw two tries to wing Jeff Wilson and stunning performances by Zinzan Brooke and Jon Preston.
Brooke scored a try and kicked a magnificent drop goal while Preston replaced an injured Simon Culhane in the 63rd minute and almost immediately kicked a penalty, one of two he kicked.
Skipper Sean Fitzpatrick thumped the ground in relief after the All Blacks held on desperately in defence in the final few minutes.
Preston says there was a sense of relief when the whistle blew for full time.
“Relief we got through a pretty epic finish but the real emotion sinks in later.
“We’d withstood a bit of an onslaught but we knew that was the test we had to win so it was desperation tackling.”
Preston rates the test as one of the three best in his career, alongside his debut against the USA at the 1991 World Cup and the third test against the Lions in 1993.
It was a remarkable game for him as he kicked a penalty with his first touch of the ball after coming on to replace Culhane.
There had been no time to warm up and he had come down from the stands at Loftus where the reserves sat in those days.
“I was a little bit nervous because it was my first touch of the ball but the adrenaline is flowing; to be fair you’ve got plenty of adrenaline flowing just watching the test.”
Preston was also on hand when Brooke kicked his drop goal.
“We were on either side of the ruck calling for the ball. Zinny was on the left and must’ve called louder than me. I wasn’t unhappy when the ball went to him and he slotted it.”
Preston grew up on a diet of rugby and says playing the Springboks, especially in South Africa was special.
“They were always the great enemy because they had such a good record. Growing up I was fully aware they were the only team with a record to match the All Blacks.”
“And playing in South Africa is amazing. Their stadiums are superb, the crowds are great, the conditions are nearly always perfect - it’s a great place to play rugby.”
And he understood the significance of winning a series in South Africa. For some, though, it was just another tour.
“Some had barely been born when the All Blacks had last played a series there,” Fitzptrick told Palenski.
“The history meant nothing to them but that didn’t mean their resolve was any less than the rest of us.”
Hart believes the difference between the two sides was skill. The Springboks couldn’t match Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen in particular.
“The two of them were in superlative form. We had a core of strength, experience and skill throughout the team that was better than what South Africa had.”
The significance of what they achieved was there for Hart and Fitzpatrick to see in the tears running down 1960 All Black Don Clarke’s face after the match in Pretoria.
But for the players, what they had done didn’t really sink in till they returned home.
“It wasn’t till we got home that we realised what it meant to New Zealand and especially to those players who had been there before. It was quite moving.”
Fitzpatrick rates the series win above winning the World Cup in 1987.
“In 1987 I don’t think anyone knew what to expect about the World Cup. In South Africa, there was no question what the prize was.”