Sport Rugby

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Apartheid-era tour that posed questions we may never answer

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

En route to the Morton Stadium in Santry in 1981, I got caught in a summer deluge, one of the ones that we keep thinking only happened this summer.

I was throwing discus at the Dublin Championships and, running on 'Frano' time, I was 10 minutes late. I was soaked to the bone and was not convinced that walking into the circle looking like Linda Lusardi would progress my chances. I had no change of clothes so I scooted off to the changing rooms to see if I could find a dry tee-shirt. I found a mouldy old throwaway in the bin and put my athletics singlet over it and went out to the throw, no warm-up.

I won the competition but was in no mood to hang around to collect the medal. The wet had permeated the epidermis and nightfall was setting in. After an hour the guy who came second came over to show me his gold medal and to relay the news that I had been disqualified. I approached the official who had made the decision to disqualify me to ascertain why. "You were promoting Pepsi at an amateur athletics event so I disqualified you."

The tee-shirt which had mould covering most of the logo did indeed say Pepsi Cola, although you could only see the first letter of the logo outside the singlet. From the off I knew there was no point in arguing with him.

"What about if I give you half the million pound fee, will you give me my medal back?"

"You rugby fellas think you are so smart but look at the damage your international team have done; shame on them, and no you can't have your medal back."

I almost admired him for his obstinacy and intransigence .

In the era when the term 'zero tolerance' hadn't been coined Bord Luthchleas Éireann (BLE) were a strictly amateur organisation, espousing the principle of Corinthian values, sport for sport's sake. The letter of the law had in this case been observed.

The year was 1981. Not exactly a year of living dangerously but there were enough delicate nitro coated socio-political events that year to bring the house down.

The IRFU, to add to the mix, decided to send the national team to South Africa in the middle of the apartheid era, which was a questionable decision. All the more so when state papers for that year, which finally revealed how fraught things had become between the government of the time and the IRFU, were released at the start of this year.

Charles Haughey's government withdrew grant aid for the IRFU at a time when they were due to build a new stand in Lansdowne Road. They also withdrew all state aid for rugby-playing schools aimed at developing the game. The government was under intense pressure from the US, the UN, Trade Union groups, the Irish Anti Apartheid movement and associated groups and no less importantly the constituent members of every club on the island, some of whom would have taken the view that it was neither prudent nor appropriate to send a rugby team representing Ireland down to South Africa, who at that stage had big flashing lights lit all over their land screaming 'Pariah nation' -- social, sporting and economic sanctions were in place worldwide. Why risk the opprobrium? Would the cultural and economic fallout not be seen to be too much to risk?

Before we delve into the question of why the team went, let's jump forward to 1989. Ireland were on the famous drinking tour of Canada and the USA. That tour was limited to 20 days so that the IRFU would not have to pay the IRB officially sanctioned tour allowance rate for a 21-day tour. We had to pay for nearly everything except the Molson Blue. Amateur game, no pay for play.

Meanwhile at exactly the same time on the other side of the planet a 30-man world XV played two 'Test matches' in Newlands and Ellis Park, losing them both by narrow margins. One Gert Petrus Smal played in that series. The IRB had officially sanctioned the series as nobody had toured South Africa since the Cavaliers. A three-year spell with no Test rugby can bring its own pressures and Danie Craven, South Africa's IRB delegate, would have been forecasting dire things happening unless there was some levity.

South African breweries and First National were involved on the sponsorship side of things. I can state that the players were paid £30,000 a man for participation on that tour. The Cavaliers in 1986 were on closer to £50,000 a man. Everyone involved in international rugby at that time knew about the payments. Amateur game, amateur ethos?

As details trickled out from the players on that 1989 tour all the way through to the World Cup in 1991, it became obvious how the system worked. South Africa needed sporting friends -- the life blood of international sport -- and rugby union in South Africa had a huge premium. A wealthy country with wealthy backers needed to ingratiate with international colleagues who would be rewarded for their help in perpetuity for organising and bringing international sport to South Africa.

No hard cash, but benefits in kind like flights, accommodation, carte blanche, whatever you wanted. Your continuous vacation would be put 'on account'. The South African people generally are very hospitable. South Africa is a perplexing country but why wouldn't anyone want to come back again and again on the house?

Going back to 1981. Some players chose not to go on principle. Some players wanted to go but were told they would lose their jobs. Some players went and lost their jobs as a result. The players who lost their jobs were given assurances that they would be looked after. The network inside and outside the country would ensure that nobody suffered hardship or unemployment issues.

I would be reasonably certain that there would not have been monetary assistance but all of this was something that seemed to be above the norm when it came to looking after player welfare. Something that the IRFU were lax to consider at that time. Why now? There was no consideration given to how the squad was pulled and tugged every which way. There is no question it had a debilitating effect on morale and team friendships for years to come. Why take such a risk?

If memory serves me correctly professionalism didn't come into the game until 1995. I often wonder were our rugby governing bodies observing the letter of the law on amateurism. We may never know.

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