IN JULY 1971 during a visit of the South African Springboks rugby union team, Orange came face-to-face with the groundswell of international protest against apartheid for the first time.
At a time when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa, the team was warmly welcomed by the rugby union fraternity, however protesters were out in full force for the game at Wade Park against NSW Country with 200 police officers lining the perimeter of the field.
Four decades later Orange resident and former state and Australian rugby representative Don Strachan, who was heavily involved in the visit of the all-white team, reflects on their time in Orange and the impact it had on the rugby community and people of Orange.
“We had two of the young players staying with my wife and I because everyone from the team was billeted by someone with a connection to rugby,” Mr Strachan said.
“They were perfect gentleman and although they didn’t ever speak to us about what was happening back in South Africa, the impression was they were concerned for their families because of the ongoing violence over there.
“They stayed with local families as it was seen as an alternative to them staying in a hotel where they might have been targeted.”
He recalls the unprecedented scenes at Wade Park in Orange where the Springboks played before a then record crowd of 6300.
“The whole of the eastern side of Wade Park was filled with protestors who had come in from Canberra and they threw a couple of smoke bombs on the ground,” he said.
“One girl even chained herself to the goal posts overnight and they had to use bolt cutters - it was July so she would have been very cold overnight I imagine,” he recalled.
“Orange had never really seen anything like that before and what you have to remember is at the time Orange was a conservative place - so it was confronting for many people.”
Mr Strachan said after the visit to Orange the Springboks reflected on being able to escape the intensity of the protests which occurred in Sydney and other places.
“We followed the team back to Sydney to watch them play and there were protestors outside the hotel where we stayed,” he said.
“At one of the venues some of the players became quite sick when they had tear gas thrown at them.”
During their Orange visit the team were kept away from the public eye when they weren’t playing, relaxing at the private Canobolas Club and Duntryleague with the local rugby fraternity. The police presence was never far away.
“It was away from the mainstream hotels and so of course the bans which were threatened by the unions against serving them at the time didn’t really apply,” he said.
Mr Strachan said the changes which unfolded in international rugby following bans imposed of tours to and from South Africa in the 1980s resonated throughout the world in international rugby.
“The writing was on the wall and I think De Klerk (last South African president during apartheid) knew that,” he said.
“There was a sense in international competition even though the other teams were strong that the ‘Boks’ still weren’t part of it during the years of the bans and they were regarded as strong,” he said.
Mr Strachan said the 1995 presentation by Nelson Mandela to the winning World Cup team was an indication that South Africa had truly been returned to the rugby fold.
“You have to acknowledge he was a great man,” Mr Strachan said.