Hamilton's rugby wars - roadside stories

In 1956 Hamilton's Rugby Park was the site of a famous Waikato victory over the touring South African rugby team. When the Springboks returned 25 years later, local rugby fans hoped for a repeat victory – but victory went instead to the anti-apartheid protesters who invaded the field and forced the cancellation of the game. Enraged rugby fans responded by attacking protesters in the streets.


Audio footage: We hear the final seconds of the historic victory by Waikato over the touring Springbok team at Rugby Park, Hamilton, in 1956. Winston McCarthy is commentating.

Narrator: Previously known as Rugby Park, Waikato Stadium has been the site of famous and infamous scenes involving touring South African rugby teams.

Rugby was first played in Hamilton in 1874. Dairy farming and rugby became a way of life in the Waikato and in the 1950s a dairy cow called Mooloo became the provincial team’s mascot. The team is still nicknamed ‘the Mooloos’ and Waikato fans ring cowbells at its games.

Waikato rugby fans are famously fanatical, which was demonstrated during the opening game of the South African tour in 1956. The pre-match parade attracted 20,000 people including bands, marching girls, and people dressed up as African animals. The Springboks were impressed with the display of ‘Mooloo fever’.

Springbok coach (actor with Afrikaans accent) If I had been a man from Mars and dropped down into your main street, I would have said without hesitation that it was the dumping ground for the lunatics of the world. If this is rugby madness give us more of it.

Narrator: 30,000 people crammed into Rugby Park to see Waikato beat the Springboks 14–10. The Mooloos were the only provincial team to beat the South Africans during the ‘56 tour.* In line with tradition, after the game, the South Africans presented their provincial conquerors with the head of a springbok antelope.

Playing full-back for Waikato that day, and scoring a decisive 8 points, was full-back Don Clarke. Standing nearly two metres tall, ‘The Boot’ as he was nicknamed, had a huge kick and was drafted into the All Blacks for the third test, again scoring 8 points in the All Blacks’ 17–10 win. Don had four brothers who also played rugby and on one occasion in 1961 all five played in a game for Waikato. The boys used to practice on the family dairy farm, with brother Ian, an All Black prop, packing down against fence-posts, and Don practising his kicking in the paddocks.  

Twenty-five years later, in 1981, another Springbok team visited Rugby Park, but in very different circumstances. The country was divided over the issue of sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa, and thousands of people in New Zealand protested against the Springbok tour.

Inside a packed Rugby Park, the fanatical Waikato rugby fans were hoping for a repeat of their team’s historic 1956 win. But anti-apartheid protestors outside the stadium had different ideas. The protestors pulled down a wire fence and about 350 made it onto the pitch just before the start of the game. They formed a close huddle and chanted ‘the whole world is watching’. And they were.

An hour-long standoff between police and protestors, as well as reports that an unauthorised plane was heading for the ground, prompted the police to call off the game. Opponents of apartheid watching the incredible scene live on television in South Africa say that it was a vital moment in the struggle against apartheid. Nelson Mandela later said that when the news reached him in Robben Island prison, it was 'as if the sun had come out’.

But the cancellation made the Waikato rugby fans furious. Some were calling for the police to ‘get into the bastards’ and others pelted the protestors with bottles, cans and even a pair of binoculars. Later there was unprecedented violence as irate rugby fans took revenge, even attacking an ambulance containing injured protestors.

Though the afternoon was a frustrating one for rugby fans, for the anti-apartheid movement, Hamilton’s Rugby Park was the site of the greatest victory of the tour.

* This is not quite correct, the Springboks also lost to Canterbury in the 1956 tour.

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wallaby historian

Posted: 04 Jun 2013

'The Mooloos were the only provincial team to beat the South Africans during the '56 tour.' So Arthur Carman and A C Swan got that one wrong when they included Canterbury and the Ivory Towers as having beaten the Springboks!