22 May 2020

The last time a rugby game got played in an empty stadium

4:49 pm on 22 May 2020

Analysis - Unprecedented is quickly becoming the most overused word of 2020, by the journalists that still have jobs anyway.

Empty seats at the ITM Cup provincial rugby match. Harbour v Counties, North Harbour Stadium, Auckland. New Zealand. Thursday 22 August 2013.

A Mitre10 Cup match played between Counties Manukau and North Harbour in an empty stadium. Photo: Photosport

The current situation has seen our social lives grind to a halt, briefly began a crude futures trading market on toilet paper and reminded those of us over the age of 35 what it used to be like on a Sunday in New Zealand.

But, there is nothing unprecedented about the way Super Rugby Aotearoa will return.

While the news has been greeted with excitement, it has been tempered by the reality that (for a while at least) the rebooted competition will be played in empty stadiums.

This has happened on various occasions in football before Covid-19, with the most notable recent example being the exclusion of fans for a Spanish La Liga match between Barcelona and Las Palmas due to political tension surrounding the Catalan independence referendum.

The NRL and AFL managed a fortnight of closed door games as the Covid crisis got serious back in March, with rugby league set to pick up where they left off on 28 May.

For rugby union, though, you need to go all the way back to 1981 to find an instance of a top level match being given the same treatment.

It's some story, involving the apartheid era Springboks, rugby clubs getting bombed and one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in America.

The 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand is remembered as one of the defining moments of the country's history, with protests raging wherever the team went.

It's also remembered for its unbelievable, dramatic climax at Eden Park that saw the biggest protest turnout outside the ground clash with police while the test match inside ended up being one of the most exciting ever played.

For us, that's where the '81 story ends.

But for the South Africans, they still had an extra leg of the tour in September of that year - three games in the United States including a test against the national side, the Eagles.

The political situation between South Africa and the USA at a time when the Cold War was at its height was pretty complex.

Stu Wilson in action against the Springboks during the South Africa tour of New Zealand 1981.

Stu Wilson in action against the Springboks during the South Africa tour of New Zealand 1981. Photo: Photosport NZ

While the apartheid regime was officially shunned by the US government, South Africa still stood as the strongest opponent of communism in the region.

In fact, it had been fighting against a Cuban-backed insurgency in Angola that came to be known as the Border War since the mid-'60s and had been receiving covert assistance from the CIA.

Bear in mind too that this was in the midst of three successive mass Olympic boycotts, sandwiched between two that directly related to the Cold War.

There were very genuine fears that the tour could spark another African boycott for the upcoming 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, like the one in 1976 caused by the All Blacks' tour to South Africa.

Besides, there was the not so insignificant matter of the civil rights movement in America, who mobilised to protest the short tour.

This, in turn, saw threats of attendance from the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party.

Future Democratic presidential nominee, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, sent buses of protesters to the Springboks' first game against a local selection in Wisconsin, which went ahead with a massive police presence.

The following day, a pipe bomb was detonated in front of the Eastern Rugby Union's office in New York.

No one was hurt, although it did blow out the front door and shatter the front windows. This rattled the tourists.

Until then the protest movement that had followed their every movement had threatened but never actually crossed the line into direct violence; even the plane that flew over Eden Park dropped bombs made of flour rather than actual explosives.

After the second tour match in Albany, NY, was again played in front of a crowd smaller than the one outside wanting the game called off, it was reported that another bomb had gone off at a rugby club in Indiana.

Rugby authorities, on the advice of the FBI, made the extraordinary call to not only play the test match against the USA in front of no spectators, but also a day early and at a different venue to hamper any would be protesters.

So, on Friday 25 September 1981, the Springboks and Eagles took to Owl Creek Polo Ground in upstate New York to play a match in front of virtually nobody.

The only ones in attendance were a few local rugby administrators and a group of FBI agents who presumably spent the game looking in the other direction for potential disruption.

It was obviously not televised, so little record remains of this dubiously historic event other than a comfortable scoreline of 38-7 to the Springboks.

Given that these days it takes at least 100 people to stage a rugby match inside a modern stadium, the lowest attended match record is one that the Springboks and USA will most likely hold forever.

After the tour, South Africa was officially cast into the sporting wilderness by apartheid sanctions, although that did not actually stop the Springboks playing (most infamously against the NZ Cavaliers in 1986).

The 1984 Olympics went ahead with African nations competing (minus South Africa), while the Eastern Bloc boycotted in retaliation of the US-led boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier.

The Border War continued with US assistance to Angolan anti-Communist factions until 1988 and eventually led to the independence of Namibia in 1990, the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

After the formation of the new South Africa, the Springboks met the USA on American soil for a second time in 2001, in front of 15,000 spectators in Houston.

There is one last, ironic twist to the tale of the lowest attended rugby test of all time, though.

The subsequent police investigation into the second 'bombing', the one that forced the authorities to play the game without a crowd, turned out to not be the work of ant-apartheid protestors at all.

Instead, it was found to be a crude attempt by the deeply in debt rugby club president to collect an insurance payout, who had siphoned petrol from cars at a local dry cleaners parking lot and tipped it all over his clubrooms before setting it ablaze.

He was convicted of nine counts of arson and obstructing justice.

Super Rugby Aotearoa might feel weird when tries are greeted with silence from an empty stadium, but it's going to be an awful lot less weird than the last time rugby had to shut its doors.

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