For a New Zealand rugby supporter, nothing beats a test series against South Africa. But in 1981 the Springboks’ visit to New Zealand caused mayhem in the streets as anti-apartheid (and anti-tour) protesters threatened to disrupt the tour by any means possible. The protesters clashed with riot police, destroyed property at match venues and surrounding suburbs; overturned cars and launched missiles. But perhaps most intriguing of all, they used a Cessna aeroplane to strafe Eden Park and to drop flour bombs during the third and final test match in Auckland.
In 1981 I was an Auckland schoolboy passionately in love with rugby. I played for my school’s First XV and like most boys of my age, followed the game with religious conviction. By the time the third and final test match between the Blacks and the Boks rolled around, the series was locked at one-all, but unfortunately, a dark cloud hovered over the country due to the sheer ferocity of the violence that had followed the tour as police, protesters and rugby supporters clashed in scenes not seen in New Zealand since the wharfies’ strikes of the 1950s.
Despite the mayhem, for the first time since 1937, South Africa approached the final international in Auckland with a rare opportunity to win a series on New Zealand soil. And such had been their superiority in their second test victory in Wellington the Boks were installed as outright favourites.
By this stage of the tour, Police intelligence was so good the All Blacks were able to train unhindered. Badgered and abused at training grounds in Christchurch and Wellington, the men in black finally enjoyed the opportunity to train unmolested on Auckland’s North Shore. The police were a step ahead of the anti-tour demonstrators, usually knowing their movements in advance. It was probably the protesters’ inability to anticipate events, or be informed, that caused them to settle for civil disobedience so often, such as brawling in the streets, upturning cars, sitting on motorways and, most bizarrely … using an aeroplane to disrupt the match.
I remember walking to Eden Park for the final test with my mates and being spat on by protesters who accused us of being racists for attending the game and “supporting South Africa’s apartheid regime”. As someone with a Maori heritage and a reasonable sense of fair play, I found their accusations amusing.
Our seats were located behind the goalposts at the terrace end of the stadium, and it was from there that we had the best (Some would say the most terrifying) view of the Cessna that strafed the ground, dropping flour bombs on the field. I will never forget the sight of the aeroplane hurtling towards us, coming in low and dropping its load before pulling up, turning around and going again.
Apparently, the pilot who had originally been recruited by the protesters to fly the plane was a gentleman by the name of Pat McQuarrie, a former World War II Spitfire pilot. However, McQuarrie had been placed under 24-hour Police guard after threatening to crash a plane into Rugby Park, Hamilton earlier in the tour. That match was subsequently cancelled. Undeterred by McQuarrie’s unavailability, the protest leaders then asked 32-year-old Aucklander Marx Jones if he’d “take a plane up for Pat”. Jones agreed without hesitation.
Hiring a plane at Dairy Flat airfield just north of Auckland, Jones boarded the plane on match day with his partner in crime, bombardier Grant Cole, and a suitcase full of flour bombs. Reaching Eden Park just before the 2.30pm kick-off, Jones flew the plane around the stadium three or four times and began his mission by dropping leaflets. They then dropped a half dozen parachute flares with most missing their target. Jones told the New Zealand Herald that it was difficult coordinating the aircraft’s speed and trajectory, so he flew in low and diagonally to avoid colliding with the goalposts.
Inside the ground, the All Blacks and Springboks ripped into one another with relentless tenacity as 49,000 fans looked on. The battle for world rugby supremacy was on the line: which team would prevail in a rivalry stretching back 60 years? Meanwhile, outside the ground, battles raged between Police and protesters. Cars were torched and overturned; Police were assaulted by missiles. Suburban Auckland had become an unlikely war zone.
In the lead-up to the match, there were fears that the protest movement had upped the ante with plans to kidnap players. In the book “The Geriatrics”, farmer and All Blacks captain during the Springbok series, Andy Dalton, recalled: “There were a lot of stories going about at the time of players becoming hijacked. On this (particular) day I was in one of our back blocks fencing by myself. Suddenly there was a terrific noise as a helicopter emerged from the nearby bush and landed no more than two metres away. The adrenaline really started pumping. I had a hammer behind my back and I gripped it tightly as these two blokes got out … It turned out they were genuinely lost and were looking for another block. But it gave me a hell of a fright and little was I to know that it was only a fraction of what was to come.”
During his fly-overs, pilot Marx Jones sometimes flew the Cessna lower than the top of the Eden Park goalposts, but usually kept the plane just above them. Some people were hurt but none seriously. Flour bombs hit people in the crowd before the bombers got their eye in and the pitch was peppered. Famously, All Black prop Gary Knight was felled by a direct hit to the head, an incident that could have caused serious injury. “It really only dazed me,” Knight recalled, “But it did shake me up.”
After the Knight incident, there was a little bit of humour to be found in what otherwise an extremely unfunny situation. As the St John ambulance men tended Knight, the Welsh referee Clive Norling cautioned them: “Be careful with that water or you’ll turn him into pastry.”
However, after Knight had been struck, the match came close to being called off. Norling consulted the two captains, Dalton and South Africa’s Wynand Claasen, and asked whether they wanted to play on. With the scoreboard reading New Zealand 22 South Africa 18, Dalton was tempted to say “yes, call it off”. But Claasen insisted the game be completed, thus denying the protest movement some sort of moral victory.
The All Blacks eventually won the third test epic 25-22, after fullback Allan Hewson kicked the winning penalty goal in injury time. In his book “For the Record”, Hewson remembers fielding a high kick that came down with a shower of debris from the low flying Cessna. “There were so many items in the air,” he recalled, “it was hard to tell which one was the ball. I must have guessed correctly because I was awarded the mark.”
Hewson also believes that after Knight was felled by the flour bomb, the All Blacks became men possessed and literally unbeatable. “The Springboks were never going to win from that moment,” he said. The flour bomb had done some damage, but most of all, it had fortified the All Blacks’ determination.
Hewson’s match-winning kick was one of the greatest pressure kicks in rugby history. Indeed, the loneliness of the long distance goalkicker was never more exemplified than at Eden Park at that moment. “Kick it,” was Andy Dalton’s instruction as he tossed Hewson the ball. Tens of thousands of All Black fans, desperately wanting their team to avenge the losses in South Africa in 1976, fell silent as Hewson lined up the ball. Hewson shut everything out of his mind, save for the kick he was about to take. “I tried to keep cool and concentrate only on the kick,” he said. “I kept saying to myself ‘It has to go over’, ‘it has to go over’. The kick felt good and I can’t describe how good it felt watching the ball curl inside the right-hand upright. I knew then we’d beaten the Springboks.”
Dalton recalls that it probably wasn’t until after the match that the players themselves fully realised the potential danger of the aeroplane flown by Jones. “Most of all, I was concerned for my family sitting in the stands,” he said. “Really, it was quite frightening, the Cessna’s engine only needed to cut out and it could have crashed into a stand. And it only needed to touch one of the goalposts for a crash to have been caused …
When Marx Jones stepped up for his Anti-Apartheid mission, he had 14 years’ flying experience and more than 250 hours in his log book. He even suggests that there was never any danger of anyone being killed, and, if necessary, he could have landed the plane on the Eden Park playing field.
After all the dramas of the 1981 Springbok tour, not to mention the protest movement’s political reasons for opposing the visit, it’s ironic that Marx later refused the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela when the late South African president (and former leader of the ANC) visited New Zealand four years after the watershed rugby series.
Mandela had stated that the protests during the tour had given him hope while he was in jail in South Africa and that the cancellation of the Boks’ game against Waikato was “like the sun came out”. Despite being chuffed by Mandela’s comments, Jones told the New Zealand Herald that he wasn’t impressed with the former president’s reign as the first black leader in his nation’s history.
“When Mandela came to New Zealand, the asshole spent most of his time with (Prime Minister Jim) Bolger who was totally pro-tour,” Marx said. “He’d allotted an hour to see us (members of the protest movement) at a church which didn’t appeal to me much anyway. I actually wrote a note saying that I really would like to meet him, but I wasn’t going to meet him under those circumstances and that I had some disagreements with his policies. I gave it to (protest leader) Johnny Minto to hand to him but I never heard from him.
“He was actually a bit of a stooge for the West. All the hard-line guys over there who wanted more of a revolution and change, they were all killed – Steve Biko and all them, they just got dispatched. They left Mandela alive because they realised when it got too tough for them to hang on to their regime they bailed out and said ‘you take it’. They knew he was the soft option. He developed into the world statesman. But in terms of poverty and the slums, nothing changed … except you’ve got a small elite set of black people who’ve made themselves very wealthy.”
Jones spent six months in jail for his protest and funnily enough, he actually enjoys rugby and still watches the game. But he’ll always be remembered for his role in one of the darkest, yet most captivating chapters in New Zealand history.