The 1986 New Zealand Cavalier tour to South Africa was known as the Battle of the Giants. Read about the incidents and players that made this tour legendary.
Making the battle a reality
The 1986 Cavaliers tour to South Africa was known as the Battle of the Giants, and this is the story behind the tour. The 1981 Springbok tour was very controversial and divided the New Zealand rugby public like never before. An official All Black tour to South Africa was planned for 1985, but shortly before the team’s departure, the tour was cancelled due to a legal ruling that it would be incompatible with the NZRFU’s legally stated purpose: “…the fostering and encouragement of the game of rugby…”.
But the top players in New Zealand WANTED to play against their greatest rivals. Louis Luyt was instrumental in organizing the tour and invited 30 of New Zealand’s top players to South Africa. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr. David Lange, strongly opposed the tour and made it clear that these players are not representing their country. Of the 30 players who had been selected for the 1985 tour, only David Kirk and John Kirwan did not join the Cavaliers.
On 12 April 1986, 22 New Zealand rugby players slipped out of their country, bound for Hong Kong. Another eight players were already in London, playing in the IRB’s centenary festival. All 30 players had a common destination – South Africa. The rugby coup of the century had succeeded.
The Cavaliers were coached by Colin Meads, managed by Ian Kirkpatrick and captained by Andy Dalton.
The team couldn’t wear their traditional All Black jerseys. Instead, they played in black jerseys with gold bands on the arms and a gold collar. The team was sponsored by the Yellow Pages.
These men triumphed in what they believed in, total freedom in rugby.
23 April vs Junior Springboks
Junior Springboks 21 – Cavaliers 22, Ellis Park
Ellis Park, the home of Transvaal rugby and the venue for the first match against the Junior Springboks. The tour was on and there was no turning back. Colin Meads bemoaned his team’s lack of preparation. The Junior Springboks didn’t care. The New Zealanders realized early on how difficult their tour was going to be and only a late drop goal by Grant Fox separated the two teams in the end.
The Cavaliers played reasonably well upfront, but failed to take all their chances on attack. Captain that night was the rangy Canterbury breakaway, Jock Hobbs, who previously captained the All Blacks against Argentina in Dalton’s absence.
Time and time again the New Zealanders demonstrated their famous rolling maul, the one awesome aspect of their game.
The South African national selectors had reason to smile. They were looking for a replacement for rugby league defector, Ray Mordt, and they had glimpsed such a man, on the Junior Boks’ right wing. His name was Jaco Reinach, the Free State sprint champion, who was beginning to show signs of international class.
26 April vs Northern Transvaal
Northern Transvaal 9 – Cavaliers 10, Loftus Versfeld
This game was known as the fifth test. Although Western Province was the reigning Currie Cup champions, the New Zealanders regarded this game as their toughest provincial challenge. This was to be Andy Dalton’s first match on tour, and also his last…
With rugby fever now running high in South Africa, speculation mounted on how the Cavaliers would cope with the illustrious Blue Bulls. This would be their first meeting with several Springboks. Among them, Naas Botha. Botha was a big match winner with the deadliest boot in world rugby at that stage. It was to be a bitter battle and referee Fransie Muller would have his hands full.
Numerous punches were thrown by both sides early in the match. Then it happened, just before half time. The teams were waging a relentless struggle, neither prepared to give an inch. From a line out, the players emerged from a loose scrum, Andy Dalton gave chase as Dave Loveridge broke away. Then, from behind, came a swinging right hook by Blue Bulls flank, Burger Geldenhuys, the most lethal blow in the game. The New Zealand skipper crumpled to the deck and slowly got to his knees. The punch was to cause an up rage. Dalton’s jaw was broken in two places. His tour was over after 37 minutes. The punch would cost Burger Geldenhuys his place in the Springbok team.
The match continued and although Northerns threatened on attack, they could not break the Cavaliers’ defensive line. Late in the match a penalty was awarded to Northern Transvaal and Naas Botha opted to kick for posts in an attempt to win the game. At the last second the ball swirled to the left and hit the upright. Naas proved he was human after all and a brutal match was over.
30 April vs Orange Free State
Orange Free State 9 – Cavaliers 31, Bloemfontein
The third match on the Cavaliers tour was up until that stage the best performance by the New Zealanders, although they didn’t pick their strongest side. The forwards and backs combined well throughout the match and left wing Craig Green scored three great tries. Grant Fox kicked another 19 points. The match was played without any incidents and the Free Staters couldn’t match the skill and pace of the Cavaliers.
It was a win that lifted the tourists’ spirit as they continued to suffer in silence following the Dalton incident.
3 May vs Transvaal
Transvaal 24 – Cavaliers 19, Ellis Park
Transvaal’s new captain Jannie Breedt expressed total confidence that his side would come out on top. The Transvaal side included ace flyhalf Schalk Naude and promising flanker, Wahl Bartmann, who would later rise to greater heights. The referee that day would be Wynand Mans, a Springbok on the 1965 tour to New Zealand.
Transvaal played a 10-man game where Naude kicked a lot. They won a lot of ball upfront and generally outplayed the New Zealanders who didn’t experience a good day on the field.
The Cavaliers were frustrated with the way referee Mans was blowing the game. They were heavily penalized at line out time and couldn’t come to grips with the fact that lifting in the line out was an accepted part of the game in South Africa. Naude kicked the penalties and Robbie Deans couldn’t reciprocate for the Cavaliers.
After Deon Coetzee scored a great intercept try for Transvaal, the score was 24 – 9 to Transvaal late in the game. The New Zealanders fought back by scoring two late tries, but they left it too late. They had lost for the first time on tour. Transvaal’s guts had won the day.
Referee Mans was accused of killing the game with 31 penalties and he didn’t endear himself to the New Zealanders. But this was only round one for him and his chief critic, Andy Haden.
6 May vs Western Province
Western Province 15 – Cavaliers 26, Newlands
Western Province were the reigning Currie Cup champions and it was thought that they would be tougher opposition for the Cavaliers. The referee for this match was Steve Strydom, but the Cavaliers were immediately concerned when they ran unto the field and saw that Wynand Mans was running touch. Mans got involved in a couple of incidents where he cited the New Zealanders for different infringements. Captain Andy Haden grew more and more frustrated and made it clear to referee Strydom that he hoped Mans would have no more impact on the game.
In the second half Wynand Mans stuck out his flag to indicate foul play on the New Zealander’s side. While referee Strydom was diffusing the situation with the players, Haden walked up to Mans and told him exactly what he thought of him. He called Mans and arsehole to his face. Haden threatened to walk off the field with his team. Schalk Burger pulled Murray Mexted to the side to try and calm things down. Carel du Plessis, the Western Province captain, spoke to Steve Strydom and to Haden to try and diffuse the situation.
Ultimately the match continued and the New Zealanders completely dominated Western Province in all facets of the play. On the day, the forwards were particularly impressive.
10 May vs Springboks – First Test
South Africa 21 – Cavaliers 15, Newlands
For the first test Andy Haden was named the New Zealanders’ skipper after Jock Hobbs lost his place to crackerjack flanker, Frank Shelford. Grant Fox was preferred to veteran flyhalf Wayne Smith and scrumhalf Dave Loveridge lost out to Andy Donald.
On the Springboks’ side there were new selections in Uli Schmidt at hooker and at flank, the Transvaal hero, Wahl Bartmann, the man who would effectively replace Burger Geldenhuys. Gert Smal, Jannie Breedt, Christo Ferreira and Jaco Reinach also made their debuts.
The first test did have some controversy attached to it when it was revealed that Toyota would be named as team sponsor and this was the first time ever that a sponsor’s logo appeared on the Springbok jersey. This was something that did not go down well with the players who weren’t compensated as part of the sponsorship.
The game was played on a cold and wet Newlands. It was thought that the Cavaliers would be tough to beat as they were more accustomed to the wet conditions. Springbok hopes rested on the kicking form of their new captain, Naas Botha.
The New Zealanders started off very well and nearly scored in the first two minutes from a planned up and under. The rest of the match was a battle of the forwards. Both teams had try scoring opportunities and both Botha and Fox kept exchanging points to make it a 15 – 15 deadlock late in the game.
Then Naas’s genius showed. From an attacking line out in the New Zealanders’ 22, Christo Ferreira gave a low pass to Naas which he picked off his boots. Botha chipped the ball through with his right foot and Carel du Plessis out sprinted Kieran Crowley to score one on the greatest tries in Springbok history. To add salt to the wounds, Naas kicked the conversion from the touch line, in the rain. Who will ever forget Naas calling Danie Gerber to hold the ball and calmly giving him instructions on how to position the ball before he landed the kick. Absolute genius. The match was over and the Boks were up 1 – 0 in the series.
13 May vs Natal
Natal 24 – Cavaliers 37, Kings Park
The match against Natal would again grab front page headlines. Former Springbok flyhalf Keith Oxlee described the fighting in this match as the worst he had ever seen and referee Steve Strydom was widely criticized for standing by. One journalist counted 64 punches during the match.
Captain Jock Hobbs described the win as a “so so effort”, but was happy that the Cavaliers could get their tour back on track with a good win in difficult circumstances. In 1986, Natal was still a B section side, but were competitive on the night. Ultimately the New Zealanders were too strong and ran out comfortable winners in the end.
17 May vs Springboks – Second Test
South Africa 18 – Cavaliers 18, Kings Park
The Springboks fielded an unchanged team after their first test triumph. The New Zealanders made three changes, most notably Jock Hobbs, who returned as captain. The conditions in Durban was perfect and the ground firm under foot, something that gave the Springboks confidence that they could beat the Cavaliers with their potent back line.
The Cavaliers were definitely up for this test and knew that they had to win to keep the series alive. Botha had a rare off day. First, Warwick Taylor scored a try from a charge down and Naas missed several kicks at goal. Jaco Reinach did score a fantastic try to keep the Springboks within reach.
A minute from time the Cavaliers were leading 19 – 18. Botha received the ball from a set piece, dummied and went for the drop goal. The ball hit the post and the Cavaliers won the second test. On the day, Naas was outFOXed.
20 May vs South African Barbarians
SA Barbarians 13 – Cavaliers 42, Ellis Park
The New Zealanders gave a rousing performance in the floodlight match at Ellis Park. They scored six tries to two with Wayne Shelford scoring three tries and Bernie Fraser scoring a brace. The two standout players for the Baa Baa’s were Helgard Muller at centre and Hugh Reece-Edwards at fullback who established himself as Johan Heunis’ chief understudy.
The New Zealanders completed their biggest victory on tour with a controlled display in all phases. Full back Robbie Deans produced an immaculate kicking display by converting all six tries and kicking two penalties.
24 May vs Springboks – Third Test
South Africa 33 – Cavaliers 18, Loftus Versfeld
For the third test the Springbok side showed three changes. Eastern Province scrumhalf Garth Wright replaced the out of touch Christo Ferreira. In the front row Frans Erasmus replaced Anton Barnard and Transvaal’s Piet Kruger took over from Flippie van der Merwe. The Cavaliers named an unchanged team which was again captained by Jock Hobbs.
At training the New Zealanders showed clearly that they planned to run the Springboks off their feet. But Naas Botha promised a 15 man onslaught – the running game everyone wanted to see.
In the first half Uli Schmidt scored arguable the greatest try by a hooker in test rugby. Jaco Reinach and Johan Heunis cleverly switched play in the back line and the ball went out to Carel du Plessis who ran on the outside and passed inside to Uli Schmidt who ran from the 22m line, side stepped two defenders and dived over for a magnificent try.
The game was tight until the last quarter when the flood gates opened. First, Naas Botha scored his first test try from a chip kick which bounced favourably into his hands. Naas was clear and he sprinted to score next to the posts.
From the kick off Naas gathered a rolling pass from Wright and sent his back line away. Michael du Plessis passed to his brother Carel. Danie Gerber switched his line to the outside and du Plessis put him away with a well timed pass. Gerber ran around Craig Green with ease and scored one of the best tries ever.
The match ended with Jaco Reinach being put away by Gerber on the outside to score his second test try. Who could ever forget Gerhard Viviers’ commentary: “Hier is spoed! Hier is spoed! Hier is spoed! Hier is spoed! Jaco Reinach!”
The Boks were too strong in the latter parts of the test and ran out convincing winners. The series was safe and the Boks were one win away from clinching the series.
27 May vs Western Transvaal
Western Transvaal 18 – Cavaliers 26, Potchefstroom
And so for the last provincial match on tour. A good crowd in Potchefstroom watched their team give a spirited comeback. After leading 19 – 3 at half time, the New Zealanders finally won 26 – 18, scoring three tries to two. Flyhalf Wayne Smith had a wonderful match to force his way back into the test team. Wayne Shelford was captain on the night and was happy with the win as it was the last game for most of the players.
31 May vs Springboks – Fourth Test
South Africa 24 – Cavaliers 10, Ellis Park
Back to the city where it all started, Johannesburg. For both teams there was a special reason for winning this test. The Springboks wanted to win the series and for the New Zealanders, there was a desire to share the spoils. The Cavaliers knew it would be easier to face the music back home if they could say “The Springboks never beat us”.
The New Zealanders left their biggest surprise for last. For the first and last time on tour, they performed the Haka.
The match wasn’t the attacking spectacle South African witnessed at Loftus. The Springboks were in total control from the outset. Naas Botha and Robbie Deans exchanged penalties but the game was sealed when Garth Wright scored a brilliant try from a chip kick from Helgard Muller who made his debut after coming onto the field as a replacement for Jaco Reinach.
Referee Ken Rowlands announced his retirement before the match. Throughout the series the New Zealanders complained about his officiating and after the final whistle players could be seen shoving the referee. A sour note to end an epic test series. At the post match function team manager Ian Kirkpatrick famously said – “We did the Haka today, mainly to scare the South Africans, but I think we scared the referee”.
At the same function Naas Botha pointed out that the New Zealanders couldn’t complain about the referee as in 1981 the Springboks were done in by another Welsh referee, Clive Norling. In 1986, New Zealand played to draw a series, in 1981, the Springboks played to win it…
The tour was over and the battle won by the Springboks. Rugby had triumphed.
The players found that support for their actions was far less than they had expected. On their return, the NZRFU barred all the players from participating in the next two All Black tests, and instead selected a new group of players. Most of these replacement players were younger, and were quickly dubbed the “Baby Blacks”. Those new All Blacks went on to form the basis of one of the most successful periods in All Black rugby, which resulted in many Cavalier players struggling to get their places back.
The All Blacks would win the 1987 Rugby World Cup with a lot of players that were blooded against France after the Cavaliers players served their suspension. South Africa remained in isolation until 1992 when they made their return against the All Blacks at Ellis Park.
For South Africans, this was a very important series that showed how strong rugby in South Africa was during the 1980’s. For most New Zealanders, this series was a non event as it wasn’t an official All Black team that toured South Africa.
Ultimately, what this series showed the world was that the players wanted to play against each other and a door was opened for a brief time for the greatest rivals in rugby to test each other on the biggest stage.
A door that should never have been shut.
Article written by Werner Frost
Photos contributed by Johan Jooste