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A conflict 100 years in the making By Tony Johnson

Baseball has the Yankees and Red Sox, Football has Barcelona and Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United, Basketball has the Lakers and Celtics and cricket has the Ashes.

Rugby has the All Blacks and the Springboks.

Yes, the Six Nations is older, a fantastic annual tradition with a passionate following, and rivalries within that competition transcend sport.

But in terms of straight one-on-one history, it’s hard to think of anything in any sport, let alone rugby that can match what has happened over the 100 years of play between New Zealand and South Africa.

On the field, it is intense, brutal, and often spectacular. Off the field, it has never been without controversy.

Tempers always flare to the surface when the Springboks and All Blacks go to war. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

At its nadir, it split New Zealand in two, the closest it will ever come to a civil war, and at its zenith, it brought South Africans together like never before.

Some will point to the Bledisloe Cup encounter of 2000 in Sydney as possibly the best test of all time, and it was a fantastic match, but for all its spectacular moments and start to finish drama, can a game where defence was at times an optional extra compare to the beautifully brutal epics of Johannesburg in 2013 or Cape Town in 2017?

Whether played in the gloom of the New Zealand winter, the thin air and blinding glare of the high veldt or the shadows of Table Mountain, something always happens that leave the fans ruminating for days, weeks, months even, afterwards.

It has always been fractious, and was for a long time, dominated by politics.

For all the disputed outcomes, the heinous acts by individuals, the calculated rule-bending and the sniping in both the traditional and now social media platforms, there remains this incredible catalogue of great test matches, played out in boiling cauldrons.

For over 60 years South Africa’s vile apartheid policy and New Zealand Rugby’s shameful acquiescence cast an indelible stain on the sport, as some of Aotearoa’s greatest players were left out of tours to the Republic because of their skin colour.

The 1976 tour sparked a ruinous boycott of the Montreal Olympics by African nations, one of which had had a water polo team playing in South Africa at the same time the All Blacks were there. The pitched opposition to the 1981 tour culminated in the infamous “flour bomb” test at Eden Park, an incredible match in its own right, never mind the low flying Cessna aircraft and the riots in the surrounding streets.

When a flour bomb made a direct hit on All Black prop Gary Knight, the medic came on and started applying the water, prompting ref Clive Norling to lighten the moment by advising “don’t pour too much water on him, he’ll turn to pastry”.

Norling, of course was at the centre of what the Boks and their fans at least, regard as a controversial end to the game, and Naas Botha still turns incandescent at the mention of the Welshman. Nothing new or old there, either. Gert Bezuidenhout and Bryce Lawrence are other whistle blowers still guaranteed to raise hackles.

Flour bombs were dropped on Eden Park during the infamous 1981 test between the All Blacks and Springboks. (Photo by Photosport)

Piet van Zyl, Suzie the Waitress, The Cavaliers, Fitzy’s Ear, the list of infamy is long and runs deep.

And yet for all that, for all the disputed outcomes, the heinous acts by individuals, the calculated rule-bending and the sniping in both the traditional and now social media platforms, there remains this incredible catalogue of great test matches, played out in boiling cauldrons.

And while the administrators have had trouble getting on the same page in recent years, there is a remarkable degree of respect between players, coaches and fans of the two teams.

When South Africa’s isolation ended in 1982, the first team back in the door was the All Blacks, who arrived to a tumultuous welcome, with Jo’berg airport almost literally packed to the rafters. A week later the Aussies, World Cup holders and a great team, walked with some bemusement into a near-empty arrival hall.

Townsville’s a nice place, but it’s hardly a fitting venue for such a game, one that was originally slated for Dunedin, but rendered impossible by New Zealand’s unbendable Covid restrictions.

So it’s a unique relationship, and it’s about to hit a milestone.

It’s one hundred years since the first test series was played, in New Zealand in 1921, and by an amazing coincidence, this week’s test in Queensland will be the 100th between the two great rugby nations.

Townsville’s a nice place, but it’s hardly a fitting venue for such a game, one that was originally slated for Dunedin, but rendered impossible by New Zealand’s unbendable Covid restrictions.

The two teams bring contrasting current form.

The All Blacks are on a winning run, growing into a new skin after a messy 2020, empowered by their new coaching staff to express themselves in the way they love to do, but not before the hard work is done up front.

Men such as Rieko Ioane are in rich form for the All Blacks and will pose major problems for the Springboks. (Photo by Scott Powlick/Photosport)

They are not without their flaws and know they will need to take it up at least another notch, but they look settled and connected, and whilst still without three of their most influential players in Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock and Richie Mo’unga, will bring freshened legs after sending out a fringe lineup against the Pumas in Brisbane.

South Africa, on the other hand, find themselves in a mini slump to which they’ll be determined to put an end.

Bouncing out of a British and Irish Lions series into the Rugby Championship is not easy, the All Blacks who played in 2005 will attest to that, but it could be that the narrow game plan that proved so effective in the World Cup and again earlier this year, has become an impediment.

That said, they’d be mad, and playing right into the All Blacks hands if they decided to deviate too far from the script. Their rather ponderous attempts to move the ball in the second Australia test suggested they’d been goaded into it by the likes of Clive Woodward.

But before you start laying down bets, it’s probably best to throw that form guide away. This test is not about what happened last week. It’s about history. It’ll be fought on traditional lines, a tradition that turns 100, and we can but hope for another epic, to mark it in fitting style.

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