How it felt to be first to invade the pitch during the 1981 Springbok Tour

Invading the pitch in Gisborne during the 1981 Springbok Tour was a terrifying moment, the first person to do it revealed.

The tour is considered a pivotal moment of change towards racial equality, particularly during apartheid South Africa.

It split the country down the middle with some in favour of the tour going ahead and others protesting in the street against it. 

Geoff Chapple told The AM Show he didn't think about invading the pitch, he just went for it.

"I figured out how to go between [police officers], you know there's a cop there and there's a cop there, over the fence, dodged between them, a great sidestep somebody pointed out I think.

"I got to the middle of the field and there's this enormous forward and I'm shouting into this cauliflower ear."

Chapple was led off the pitch by police officers and charged with breaching the peace.

"When the flying squad arrives, which are very fit young cops, tackle you, take you to the ground, twist your arm up you're back and you get led off the field and you go in the tunnel.

"I still remember someone shouting 'kill the little redheaded bastard', those were the emotions that of that time. You were absolutely the enemy and they would have."

The next game was in Hamilton and Chapple was determined not to be the alone on the pitch staring down two angry rugby teams.

"This time I thought 'I'm not going to be the only one that runs on, it was bloody appalling out there by myself' and this time there were hundreds."

Around 350 protesters invaded the pitch in Hamilton. Dozens were arrested, but the rugby spectators were becoming agitated and there were reports a stolen light plane was approaching the stadium, so the game was cancelled.

Chapple wrote a book about the events, which he was able to give to Nelson Mandela years later. He said meeting Mandela was an incredible experience.

"There's a sort of charisma that blows your consciousness out the window when you approach someone like that, I mean he's quite a guy."

July 18 was Nelson Mandela Day, and was celebrated in Auckland with a food truck festival at Eden Park and a late-night opening of Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition.

The exhibition will run until August 4.