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In the sleepy West Country of England last Wednesday a game of rugby was played that could have a profound effect on the Moscow Olympics. The momentous afternoon began quietly. So quietly, indeed, that the game's prelude could have been scripted by the British Tourist Authority: an ancient Devon town, its cathedral on the hill, a helmeted bobby on duty and a little old lady offering, in a soft, strawberries-and-cream burr, to bring him a cup of tea.
Except that he was only one of 400 bobbies, that is to say, cops, who were blocking off the side streets that led to Exeter's County Ground, a tiny stadium that serves as a greyhound track, a motorcycle speedway and a rugby field. "My giddy aunt!" the old lady marveled.
Down the road, marching raggedly to brave tunes played on an accordion, a motley procession was approaching—kids mainly, a scattering of adults. They were rather fewer in number than the massed police, and the message they had come to convey was clear on the placards that many of them carried. They showed a cop in paramilitary uniform, his club raised high to beat down on fleeing black heads, IF YOU COULD SEE THEIR NATIONAL SPORT, the caption read, YOU MIGHT BE LESS KEEN TO SEE THEIR RUGBY.
The Devon County constabulary tightened its ranks. The old lady scuttled back into her house. But the demonstrators seemed unlikely to spoil Exeter's weekday peace. And it looked more unlikely that they had any chance of preventing the game between the Devon County side and the South African Barbarians.
It had all been very different in October 1969, the last time a South African rugby team—an all-white national team called the Springboks—had come to Britain. All hell had broken loose then. Opponents of apartheid, led by a 19-year-old expatriate white South African named Peter Hain, organized violent disruption of the games. Just as violently, Hain's demonstrators were met head on by rugby fans who regarded a visit by the powerful and much acclaimed Springboks as a great sports occasion that they would not be denied.
In one of the first '69 games—at Swansea, Wales—the protesters invaded the field and were confronted by arm-banded "stewards," vigilantes recruited from among the burly players of neighborhood clubs. It was a bloody scene. Many of the demonstrators were brutally manhandled; some were thrown bodily over a fence back into the crowd so that the fans could deal with them. The police had been taken by surprise by the scale of the rioting. Later, they would employ massive numbers, including dog handlers, to keep the factions apart as the tour limped on to its conclusion. But it had become a misery. Play was constantly stopped by protesters who ran onto the field. The hallowed turf of Twickenham, world headquarters of rugby, was violated by smoke bombs. The mighty Springboks—a magnificent side at the start of the tour—began to lose games to inconsiderable opposition.
Any referee would have given the protesters a narrow win on points, and the following summer the British anti-apartheid movement scored a K.O. when it prevented a visit by the South African national cricket team. By 1977, the movement's victory seemed complete when the British Commonwealth heads of state signed the Gleneagles Agreement, committing member countries to discourage all sporting ties with South Africa.
Long before that, in 1970, South Africa had become the first country to suffer expulsion from the Olympics. But in many ways that was a less bitter moment for the South African sports fan than the cutting of international rugby ties. For the volk, the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, rugby is more than a national game. It is a religion. The green-and-gold-shirt-ed figure of a Springbok forward thundering down the field at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria is as much a national symbol as the leaping antelope, the springbok, itself.
Clearly, an all-white South African rugby team would stand no chance of making a foreign tour, and until the ponderous concept of the Barbarians came to light, that seemed to be that. But the South African government claims that apartheid in sport has been eroding fast since the turbulent early '70s. New rules were enacted allowing black and white teams to play against one another. Multinational sport, as the South Africans call it, was becoming a reality. And that was enough to convince the somewhat naive administrators of British rugby that a fresh start could be made.
The Barbarians who would be coming to England would be a perfect balance: eight white players, eight black and eight colored (the South African designation for those of racially mixed descent). Players of different races would actually share hotel rooms and eat at the same table on tour.