Rugby-field brawl puts New Zealand-S. Africa games in jeopardy
Wellington, New Zealand
An atypical explosion of fury at a New Zealand rugby field has put the already controversial South African Rugby team's tour of this country in doubt. About 250 demonstrators protesting South Africa's apartheid practices rammed through a wire fence onto the playing pitch minutes before Saturday's scheduled game in Hamilton between the South African springboks and the local Waikato team was due to start in front of 28,000 fans.
The protesters threw tacks and smoke bombs into the mud. The 500 police on hand -- NEw Zealand's biggest police mobilization ever -- were unable to stop a surge by another 1,000 or so demonstrators through the gap opened by the first fence-crashers. The spectacle degenerated into a fist-swinging brawl between demonstrators and irate fans.
When officials finally called off the game, 20 demonstrators led by an umbrella-wielding woman leaped onto the field and waded into the protesters before police could repel them.
Immediately after the ruckus police commissioner Robert Walton declared it was "a sad day for law and order in New Zealand." He went into a huddle with New Zealand rugby football union chairman Cez Blazey to discuss the future of the tour.
Prime Minister Robert Muldoon issued a statement from New York, where he is staying after meeting President Reagan, saying he deplored the protesters' use of gas bombs and declared that the National Party would review the tour situation Tuesday.
Never before has New Zealand experienced such disorder at a sporting event. Prime Minister Muldoon has been severely criticized by numerous commonwealth countries for allowing the Springboks to enter the country. Engaging in sport with South Africa violates the "Gleneagles agreement," an understanding among Commonwealth members that they will not compete against South Africa because of its apartheid policies.
One result of the New Zealand rugby union's insistence on playing the South Africa-New Zealand games is that a September meeting of Commonwealth finance ministers planned for Auckland was transferred to the Bahamas.
Prime Minister Muldoon has vowed to question the human-rights records of those countries who have criticized the New Zealand games at the Commonwealth heads-of-governmnt meeting in Melbourne, Australia, in September.
This has alarmed Australian Premier Malcolm Fraser who sees the Springbok tour becoming an issue at the conference. Australia is also concerned that African nations will boycott the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane next year because of the tour.
Back in New Zealand, the National Party government faces a mounting law-and-order crisis. Police commissioner Walton has said the number of police raised for the Hamilton games was "all we can muster." He says any other demonstrations like Hamilton would stretch police to limit.
At Christchurch, a large southern city were opposition has been most violent, a bomb exploded in a washroom at Christchurch airport.
Three days earlier in the rugby-mad city of Gisborne, police fought a pitched battle in the rain and mud with demonstrators who tried to ram a fence onto the ground where the Springboks were starting their controversial tour.
The National Party caucus will meet Tuesday to discuss the tour. It is believed to be split over on the question of whether to allow the tour to continue. It is an especially controversial issue for the party as there is an election in November. Party members no doubt well remember what happened to the late Norman Kirk, Labour prime minister in 1973, who asked the rugby union to cancel a Spring bok tour. His party lost heavily at the following election.