'You cannot separate sport and politics': Former Lions on South Africa tours during apartheid

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John Taylor on tour with the Lions - S&G AND BARRATTS
John Taylor on tour with the Lions - S&G AND BARRATTS

The image remains seared in John Taylor’s mind some 50 years on from the Lions tour to South Africa in 1968.

Walking down the street in Port Elizabeth, a black man coming the other way passed Taylor’s group. In an instant, he was set upon with a flurry of fists and boots. His crime? Not stepping into the road to let white men pass unimpeded.

“It was all over in a minute and I stepped in to ask him if he was alright,” Taylor, the Wales back rower, said. “His first reaction was that I was going to strike him too. That really stayed with me. That was when I knew being here was wrong.”

Twelve years later, Tony Ward, the Ireland fly half, stepped off the plane at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg for the 1980 Lions tour to be greeted by a mob of photographers. Amid the excitement, Ward’s eyes were drawn to a notice stating “Whites Only Toilet”. “It knocked me stone cold dead,” Ward said. “Despite all that was going on around me, the excitement and euphoria, that sent a chill down my spine. It triggered a desire when I was there to scratch below the surface as we went along.”

As the true horror of apartheid, a system based on the strict segregation of races underpinned by the notion of white supremacy, came to light, South Africa was gradually isolated from the rest of sporting world.

Fifa expelled South Africa in 1961. The IOC followed suit three years later. Rugby union, however, stubbornly maintained its links with official tours continuing through the 1970s and into the early 1980s.

Yet while the International Rugby Board (IRB, now World Rugby) refused to act, just a handful of players took the decision to boycott playing South Africa on conscientious grounds. Taylor was the first. A teacher at a multicultural secondary school in Putney, he had grappled with the moral question of touring in the 1968.

“I thought how I can really sustain my principles that I look at in teaching with going to South Africa, but I desperately wanted to be a Lion, I was 22,” Taylor said. “The rugby mantra was sport and politics, keep them apart. We are not supporting apartheid, we are building bridges. Very quickly when you got there you realised we were not building bridges. I wish I had been strong enough to have actually said no right from day one. I definitely regret that. We should not have gone.”

The following year, Taylor told the Welsh Rugby Union that he did not want to be considered for the fixture against South Africa. “I was reassured by Bill Clement, the secretary, that it would be taken as a matter of conscience and [they] fully understood my position,” Taylor added. “I was then left out of the squad for the (1970) Five Nations with no explanation.”

As Wales’ form dipped, Taylor returned to the fold and he later received an availability letter for the 1974 Lions tour to South Africa. “By that time my colours were nailed firmly to the mast. There was no question that rugby and cricket helped to perpetuate apartheid. If you were a white South African, as long as you had your cricket and rugby union, which were your main sports, life was pretty good for you.

"Danie Craven [the president of the South African Rugby Board] and his cronies were pretending things were getting more liberal, but they were actively preventing integration. Rugby supported that to the hilt.”

By his own admission, Ward was fairly naïve to the realities of apartheid before he saw that first sign at the airport in 1980. He had next to no interest in politics. As the tour wore on, the “building bridges” party line he had been fed slowly crumbled. Black people were coming up to him saying the Lions had to beat the Boks. “I found that so confusing. How could that be? It was little things like that were feeding into my mind.”

On another occasion, he was part of a Lions party that visited a hospital for disabled children in Cape Town. “They were so excited about our visit,” Ward said. “They had done lots of drawings, some of which they had done with their feet. It was a lovely experience but when they were finished they went back to separate wards in segregated areas. That cut so deep with me."

Ward had seen enough so when in 1981 Ireland were due to return to South Africa, he along with teammates Hugo MacNeill, Moss Keane (pictured below), Donal Spring turned down the invitation to the fury of the Irish Rugby Football Union.
Change was slowly coming and even rugby had to act.

Moss Keane playing for Ireland - INPHO
Moss Keane playing for Ireland - INPHO

The 1986 Lions tour was cancelled and South Africa were not invited to the 1987 or 1991 World Cups. Taylor is certain their isolation from rugby hastened the fall of apartheid in the early Nineties. The question is whether it could have fallen earlier if rugby had joined in the global sporting boycott of South Africa.

“Rugby should hang its head in shame for all those years,” Taylor said. “They could have taken a big stand if they really cared, much, much earlier. A lot of people on the IRB genuinely believed if you were a rugby man you were a good guy whatever; that the brotherhood of rugby was more important than the brotherhood of man.”

Athletes’ right to protest and express political opinions is a topic that is likely to come into renewed focus with the Tokyo Olympics getting under way. In a utopian world, there would be no need for sport and politics to mix. But when you have a heinous regime such as apartheid or, in more recent times a country committing genocide, then the decision to take the field against a team representing that cause is a political one.

“Sport has been used by politicians for a very, very long time,” Taylor said. “In the 20th century you can go through from the Berlin Olympics and the idea that you can keep the two things separate is ridiculous. It just can’t be done.”

Neither Taylor nor Ward attach any blame to their contemporaries for touring South Africa when they did not. Their decisions were based on their personal experiences. Many others would have been blinded by what Ward calls the “tunnel vision” of representing your country or the Lions.

Even now, 41 years on, he struggles to answer the question of whether he would have gone in 1980 knowing what he knows now. “I can’t go back to my 25-year-old self and my state of mind,” Ward said. “You wanted to achieve all you could in the game. I would love to say ‘absolutely I wouldn’t have gone’. But I would be lying and it would be morally corrupt. I don’t know is the real answer.

“To this day, the one thing I know is that not going back with Ireland in 1981 did not change the world, but by God I made the right decision. I have made many different decisions in my life that I really regret but on this one I got it absolutely right.”