When Peter Burke took on the job as All Blacks coach in 1981, he suddenly became Public Enemy Number One. But only to half the country.

That was the year the South African rugby team (the Springboks) came to play, much to the dismay of many Kiwis who believed the tour sanctioned South Africa's racist apartheid system. The New Zealand Government, then led by Robert Muldoon, refused to cancel the tour.

Protest marches were held all over the country, and when the Springboks arrived a period of civil unrest never seen before in New Zealand erupted on the nation's streets. Friendships disintegrated, families were divided and pro-tour supporters clashed with protesters outside rugby venues.

Fulfilling a dream of coaching the mighty All Blacks placed Peter right in the middle of the debate. Even his captain, Graham Mourie, went out on a limb. "When I was appointed coach, I knew Graham wasn't very happy. Right from the start, I went out to Opunake, to the farm to see him."

In the coastal Taranaki town Peter found the rugby flanker out in a field and tackled him gently. "I understand you're not too keen on playing against the Springboks?" Graham agreed, and when pressed said he would be available to play against Scotland and also take part in the New Zealand summer tour of Romania and France.

Instead of getting riled up over losing his captain for the Springboks' tour, Peter accepted Graham's choice with respect and no resentment. He told the Taranaki farmer: "We won't hold that against you." And he didn't.

While Graham's stance was quietly forceful and Peter's response showed great tolerance, the rest of New Zealand did not follow their examples. "People kept ringing me up at home and if I wasn't at home my wife [Betty] would get a bit of hassling. People would write to me and ask me why I was carrying on."

But Peter believed sport and politics shouldn't mix. "When we came together as a team, we had a job to do for New Zealand rugby as a sport and we got on and did the job we were asked to do." Sometimes that was impeded by protesters. "Things were happening around us wherever we went."

For a second Peter looks heavenward. "When we assembled in Christchurch for the first test, we were staying at the Russley Hotel, we had the Red Squad with us" he says, explaining that the players had 52 riot police officers to protect them. And more.

Before the players and police moved in, the bomb squad and trained dogs were sent in to check the rooms were safe. "We wondered what was going to happen" Peter says. To train, the All Blacks were driven to a secret location on the outskirts of Christchurch. Although people soon found them and came to watch, there were no problems there.

In the city, it was a different picture. "With the demonstrations and everything going on around us, the pressure was on and we were having to front up and build ourselves up for a test match against South Africa. I guess they were in the same boat too."

For the second test in Wellington, Peter says the Springboks were forced to live in the grandstand and reception area at Athletic Park. The All Blacks were staying in a hotel at Kilbirnie, which may not have been a good move. "People would drive there at night and try to keep our guys awake. We had to be down at the ground at 9.30am. Our guys were trying to lie on the concrete floor to get some rest before the game. It was a hopeless situation. You can just imagine these big fellas, like Andy Haden, trying to get rest on this hard concrete and at 3 o'clock in the afternoon go out on the field to play in a vital test against South Africa."

For the third and final test in Auckland, the All Blacks were staying on the North Shore. While their build-up was quiet, match day was a disaster. The team arrived at Eden Park early in the morning for the afternoon kick-off. This time the rugby union was organised and had double mattresses laid out for all the players.

Outside the park, thousands of protesters were gathering behind waves of barbed wire. Like the riot squads, many of the demonstrators wore helmets and wielded shields. Others waved placards, while some stood unarmed, but vocal. "It was scary. Our boys, before they went on the park, they could look out of the windows of the grandstand and see what was going on."

Peter says many of the players felt frightened for loved ones coming to watch the game. But worse was to come. During the match, a light aircraft began buzzing the ground. "When that plane started flying around and dropping those flour bombs… anything could've happened. They were trying times."

Peter first realised the extent of opposition to the tour, when he was doing his New Zealand selector duties. "My wife and I went to the Waikato game" he says, leaving the statement hanging in the air. Before that match protesters invaded the field, refusing to budge. Police and demonstrators clashed, blood was spilt, and the game was called off.

Afterwards, Peter and Betty walked back to their hotel at Te Rapa. "We were the only two people, apart from police, staying in that hotel." Scenes from the Waikato match made Peter ask questions. "That was our first experience of what was going to happen. I felt, in the back of my mind, 'How the hell are we going to get together as a group?'"

That crop of All Blacks, led by Andy Dalton and including Taranaki halfback Dave Loveridge, ended up bonding like soldiers on the frontline. "We're still pretty good mates now" Peter says when interviewed in 2003. "But we would certainly not like to go through that again." Now, with hindsight, he quietly admits: "It probably shouldn't have gone on."

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