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Rugby and race: New Zealanders find that playing South Africa can be complicated

"Stop the Tour! Fight Apartheid!" Shout posters in this green and pleasant land, where the leaves have been turning to brown and russet. The posters focus attention on a dilemma that is deepening as quickly as autumn's colors here: Should New Zealand, which has long opposed racial discrimination, cancel its scheduled round of rugby matches next month with South Africa because of its apartheid policies?

The issue is the nation's hottest controversy in some time. Among the reasons why:

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* Rugby is one of the few areas in which little New Zealand stands as a giant. New Zealand-South Africa games are sometimes viewed as the world championship of the sport.

* International opposition to the South African "Springboks" tour is mounting. There are threats to transfer a meeting of Commonwealth finance ministers, slated for Sept. 21 to 23 in Auckland, to another nation. And in sport, West Indian cricket players have canceled a tour of New Zealand scheduled for next year.

* Beyond the impending series of matches is the specter of at least a partial black African boycott of the Commonwealth Games next year in Australia, if New Zealand actuall plays host to the Springboks.

* New Zealand's own desire to host the 1990 Commonwealth Games may be dashed if the New Zealand "All Blacks" (named after the color of their playing togs) play the South African team.

At home, pools show that more than half of New Zealanders want the tour canceled. Among the reasons they cite for opposing the games: the questionable morality of playing sports with representatives of a nation practicing systematic discrimination; expected international recrimination; religious opposition; and fear of violence.

Local groups promise to protest the tour, and police estimate it will cost $2 .7 million to provide protection. Some city councils say they will refuse use of buses and practice fields to the players.

In addition, many Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church oppose the games, and leading newspapers have called on the government to block the tour by denying entry permits.

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The government, however, wants to avoid official intervention in the affair: The National Party won control of Parliament in 1975 partly on its pledge to stand aside when such sports issues arise.

But the latest tinder dropped into the heated rugby debate involves a blunder by one of the government's own ministers, Manuera Benjamin Rikai Counch, who said in a television interview that he supports South African apartheid. His statement came as a particular surprise because Mr. Counch is himself a Maori, minister of police and Maori affairs, and a former member of the All Blacks who was denied entry into South Africa to play rugby because of his skin color.

Soon after the program aired Mr. Counch explained that what he really believes is that no group or person shuld be branded as inferior, but that "at this stage of South Africa's development, some form of separate development may be unavoidable."

The damage, nonetheless, has been done. Deeply embarrassed, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's Cabinet reiterated its support for the "Gleneagles agreement," a pact among Commonwealth nations to combat racism by discouraging competition with sportsmen from South Africa.

The agreement was made in 1977 after black African states boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics in response to a New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa.

It was after this pact that New Zealand public opinion began to swing against sporting events with South Africa.

Whether New Zealand has fulfilled the requirements of the agreement is expected to be a live issue at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Melbourne, Australia, in September.

Mr. Muldoon's strategy appears to be to try to hold the middle ground -- a conservative interpretation of Gleneagles. The government has sought to discourage new Zealand's rugby union from going forward with the present tour. It withheld a grant of $10,000 to the union and denied small prerequisites to would-be team members.Some of this activity has been undermined to a degree by some members of the Cabinet who publicly support the tour, saying sports exchanges can help to break down apartheid.

The New Zealand Rugby Union, however, has the power to keep its invitation to the Springboks open, and so far it has rejected pleas to withdraw it. It points out that British, French, and Irish rugby teams visited South Africa recently.

Two All Blacks players are refusing to play in the series; one of them is rugby captain Graham Mourie. All races will be eligible to play in the New Zealand rugby team; some of Maori background will probably be selected.

Only One Colored player, no blacks, will probably make the South African touring team.

The Supreme Council for Sports in Africa has recently written the New Zealand government calling on it to "intervene energetically" to cancel the tour or bear the "grave consequences."

As they and the world scan this clash between sport and politics, New Zealanders watch anxiously.

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