ABs warned ahead 1972-73 tour

In this book extract from Behind the Silver Fern, Tony Johnson and Lynn McConnell reveal that the IRA sent a letter to All Blacks first five-eighths Bob Burgess before a Test against Ireland in 1972.

Mention rugby and politics in New Zealand and most people will think of the All Blacks and South Africa and the controversies of the 1970s and 1980s.

But it was a different kind of politics the All Blacks found themselves embroiled in during the 1972-73 tour of Britain, Ireland and France.

The All Blacks visited Belfast at the height of the troubles between Catholic and Protestant communities in Ulster, something no other international side did.

Feelings were high and the All Blacks first five-eighths Bob Burgess found that out before the side returned to Dublin to play a test against Ireland.

He received a letter from the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein, which he has not made public until the publication of new book Behind the Silver Fern.

I recall being nervous about going to Ulster during the Troubles but it wasn’t really discussed. The NZRU had agreed to a tour and that was on the agenda, so everybody knew the game was on.

What we didn’t appreciate was what was illustrated in the letter I received before the Irish Test. And that was the level of antagonism by many people in Ireland to the English, Scots and Welsh rugby teams.

It was something that was discussed but only in a minor way because I don’t think we really appreciated the politics of what we were getting into.

The team stayed in a hotel that was about half an hour north of Belfast, at Dunadry. We drove by bus to the game by what I understand was a rather circuitous route taking half an hour longer than we might have expected to take and I’m sure that was to do with secrecy.

When we got to the ground, and right through the game, on the top of the stadium, which was like an amphitheatre, there were armed soldiers. We saw them at training on the Thursday before the game. We trained at Ballymena, north of Belfast, and it was snowing. God it was cold, snow on the ground and these British military forces were there all armed with machine-guns which they happily showed us.

The reception we got on the day of the game was huge. When we ran onto the ground there was such a roar and hand clapping that just carried on and on and on, and the same at the end of the game. I think we knew that our presence had been appreciated.

There was an uneasy feeling that what we were doing was political and that we were being used other than for it just being a game of football. The four Home Unions were wanting to make a point. England played in Dublin in 1973, but it was 1974 before Wales and Scotland went there, and neither team played Ireland at all in 1972.

Before the Ireland Test I received a letter from the IRA. I wasn’t aware of any other players receiving the letter.

I didn’t turn it into a point of discussion with the other players and I’m not aware of who the other players might have been who could well have received it.

I do think I may have received it because my stance against South Africa was well known. That stance wasn’t a topic that was brought up at all by other players during the tour and I didn’t bring it up as an issue. It was simply something in the background as everyone was aware of my stance. They may have commented among themselves but not with me. There were others including Bruce Robertson and Sandy McNichol, who were opposed to the Springboks coming in 1973, but that was after the team came back to New Zealand.

What I remember about the Ireland game was the ball being kicked into the All Blacks’ in-goal area and my turning and chasing after the ball and running alongside the Irish wing Tom Grace and thinking, “I could knock his shoulder with my shoulder, barge him out of the way and then could probably beat him to the ball.”

However, if he turned his shoulder so that I hit him either in the chest or the back then it would be a penalty try under the goalposts and they would certainly convert that try. This was going through my mind as I was trying to beat him to the ball. But he beat me to the touchdown – the photo shows it was by a head!

However, Barry McGann wasn’t able to convert it, so it was 10-10.

During the Test there had been an explosion downtown, a bombing, that was audible from the ground and we were told afterwards what happened.

I don’t think it registered with any of the All Blacks but it certainly did with the Irish team and I think it affected their playing somewhat.

It could have rattled them. I have often wondered if McGann, in attempting the conversion, was put off by a bomb?

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