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Rugby documentary tells story of Ireland’s 1981 apartheid tour


Anger: Rugby fans protest against the Ireland team’s tour of South Africa at Lansdowne Road in 1981

Anger: Rugby fans protest against the Ireland team’s tour of South Africa at Lansdowne Road in 1981

Anger: Rugby fans protest against the Ireland team’s tour of South Africa at Lansdowne Road in 1981

Forty years ago Ireland’s rugby team beat England, Scotland and Wales to win the Triple Crown for the first time in over three decades, just months after finding themselves at the centre of a major political storm.

A new RTE podcast ‘Crossing The Line’ tells the story of Ireland’s 1981 tour to South Africa at the height of apartheid.

The Irish Rugby Football Union defied a worldwide sporting boycott on South Africa and sanctioned the controversial tour, despite condemnation from the anti-apartheid movement and across the political spectrum.

What was to be Ireland’s first tour since 1961 provoked widespread criticism with the Irish Government, church and unions all united on the issue.

Cabinet ministers and then President of Ireland Patrick Hillery stayed away from Five Nations games in protest while a wire fence was erected around the pitch at Lansdowne Road.

Four Irish players Donal Spring, Hugo MacNeill, Tony Ward and Moss Keane — took a stand against South Africa’s brutal apartheid system of racial discrimination and refused to travel.

Other players lost their jobs while Irish athletes were boycotted in other events.

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Tony Ward had been in South Africa in 1980 with the Lions and said the impact of that visit had a lasting effect on him.

“I remember seeing the signs on the walls: ‘Whites only toilets’. I hadn’t even thought about it. That was the thing that registered with me, I guess it had an immediate imprint,” he said.

“I made my mind up on that 1980 tour, even though I loved it, I loved being a Lion, I played in a Test match, all the trimmings that went with it… But it was wrong. It shouldn’t have taken place and I was wrong to be there.”

Hugo MacNeill added: “Everybody had a view whether it was right to go or wrong to go. It was a bit like Saipan, were you for Roy Keane or not for Roy Keane, there were very few neutrals.”

For others at that time, like Gerry McLoughlin and John Robbie, rugby came first and they made the journey.

McLoughlin resigned his job as a schoolteacher in Limerick to travel with Tom Kiernan’s panel alongside Robbie, who also quit his job at Guinness.

“It was a simple decision. Do I resign or do I walk out, or not go? I just think the honourable thing to do was to resign,” McLoughlin said.

“Rugby was still the most important thing for me and playing for Ireland was that important,” he added.

With a huge protest by the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement planned for the squad’s departure and Aer Lingus staff and unions representing airport workers refusing to handle one of their flight bookings out of Dublin, the players were given secret instructions to depart.

“I was shocked. It was cloak and dagger stuff to get out of the country,” Ward added.

But the tour was also memorable for the selection of Errol Tobias — the first ever black player to line out for South Africa.

He tells the documentary about the huge scrutiny he was under from all sides in South Africa as the first ever black Springbok and 40 years on, the legacy of him crossing the line.

“We wanted to show that there’s no difference in people with colour and we thought we could make breakthroughs in playing,” Tobias said.

Crossing the Line, a Documentary on One, will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 at 6pm this Sunday, July 11 or the podcast is available to listen to now.

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