Jampacked with South African "right stuff," they are adored and fussed over, the closest thing to living heroes. Even after their playing days end, a special aura lingers with the Springboks.

As South Africa's all-star rugby team, the Springboks are at the top of a sport introduced here by the British in the 1890s that has become a national passion.

One recent Saturday at 4 a.m., alarm clocks were ringing and lights flicking on in the homes of millions of whites. Droopy-eyed fans dragged themselves from bed to television set to watch the first game between the Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks (so named because black is the national color) taking place seven time zones away.

The early-morning rise was not rewarded. The Springboks lost, 14-9. "Too much mud," the South Africans said at first. But never ones to be easy on their heroes, they added honestly that their beloved 'Boks had not played as well as they should. Small wonder.

Demonstrations by antiapartheid protestors have put the Springboks under virtual siege in New Zealand and brought the ludicrous sight of games being played behind barricades of 2,000 policemen. Bloody clashes between police and demonstrators, who earlier had strewn fishhooks on the pitch in an attempt to stop the match, marked that game. Later, 29 people were arrested and 20 others injured as police clashed with several thousand antiapartheid demonstrators while the Springboks were defeating the New Zealand team, 24-12, in Wellington.

Just playing the games, never mind winning them, has become the prime objective of the tour that white South Africa and the Springboks had hoped would be an important breakthrough in their international isolation in sports. It has been a particularly painful isolation when it comes to rugby.

Here the debate rages in sports circles, particularly in rugby, as to whether the changes introduced in response to that isolation are fundamental, opening the way to equal opportunity for all races and integrated sporting (most whites say so) or whether they are superficial, layering a white-dominated sporting situation with token blacks to "fool the world" and get the Springboks back into international competition (most blacks say so).

In rugby, as in most sports at the moment, only a few things are certain: the changes have been slow in coming, they have not had mass impact, no one is happy, and sports and politics, like oil and water in a dirty harbor, are swirling about each other unmixed but inseparable.

"There is absolutely no discrimination in rugby at all, no discrimination as far as laws and policy is concerned," said Danie Craven, president of the South African Rugby Board. "There is nothing to bar any South African from playing for any club he wants to play for or barring clubs from playing against whatever club they want," he said, adding that there are so many mixed clubs, "we don't even notice them any more."

Before there were any international pressures on South Africa, there were three separate rugby leagues for whites, coloreds (persons of mixed race) and blacks, which did not play against each other. As criticism mounted, Craven's all-white South African Rugby Board brought the two others into its executive committee and became an umbrella organization for all three.

Although the three leagues still are organized on racial lines, theoretically they are now open to all races and play one another. Altogether the board has "well over 100,000, nearer to 200,000 members," of whom 10,000 to 12,000 are of mixed race, Craven said.

This year, for the first time ever, a racially mixed rugby player, Errol Tobias, was chosen to join the Springbok team, whose members are mostly Afrikaners. There never has been a black rugby Springbok, but Craven says this is now theoretically possible. The rugby leader was a bit ahead of his own government when he said there no longer are any legal barriers to mixed rugby. But the government has promised to remove them during the current parliamentary session by amending laws prohibiting mixed drinking and requiring whites to have permits to go into black neighborhoods. (They will by amended only for sports-related activites, however.)

These changes, Craven believes, no longer justify South Africa's ostracism from world sports; now merit and time must do the rest. "I would say this without question -- we are now busy implementing a policy. Along the road there will be problems, incidents, but I look upon them as teething problems," he said.

But there is no cheering from the estimated 22,000 players in the South African Rugby Union, a rival national body set up in the late '60s by racially mixed persons, Indians, blacks and some whites who wanted a nonracial rugby situation.

They point out that the board's executive still is mainly white, that five of the seven selectors who chose the Springbok team are white, that most of the board's clubs are still all-white (they have heard of only two mixed teams) and that the membership of the board's affiliated black and racially mixed leagues, estimated by most observers at 11,000 altogether, is smaller than theirs.

SARU has about the same number of provincial level teams as does the board and all nonwhite schools are affiliated to it. (Because of the segregated school system there is practically no interracial school level rugby.)

SARU does not have the money, the facilities or the employer underwriting the board can muster. Most South African companies give their sponsorships to the board. The South African Milk Board, for example, this year gave it over a quarter of a million dollars and last year the government gave it more than a $3 million.

In contrast, SARU lost $30,000 in 1980. (For the first time this year, it got a contribution from a U.S. company, the Ford Motor Company in Port Elizabeth.)

Most of the Springboks in New Zealand have full-time jobs (one is a South African police chaplain) and will be paid for the time they are away. "I would like to see SARU go on an overseas tour and see how many jobs they would have when they come back," said Cheeky Watson, a white Port Elizabeth shop owner who was kicked out of the board in 1976 for playing rugby with blacks. He is now a member of SARU.

Many blacks and racially mixed persons who played with board-affiliated clubs have moved to SARU, Watson claims, because of pressures in their communities against being seen as "sellouts," which is how many regard Tobias. "To quote me Tobias as an example of change in a country where blacks outnumber whites 5 to 1 is ludicrous and laughable," he said.

SARU is affiliated with the South African Council of Sports (SACOS), an organization whose motto is, "There can be no normal sports in an abnormal society."

"This is a silly saying that sounds good," retorts Craven. "First of all, no one knows what it means. Just show me one normal society in the world; with vice, divorce and unemployment, we don't have one."

But SACOS people say that as long as racially based discrimination in salaries and segregation in residential areas, schools and politics remains, these factors will prevent in practice what Craven says is now theoretically possible -- integrated sports clubs, teams and activities.

Watson points out how a racially mixed captain of a mainly black rugby team in Port Elizabeth was arrested only last month for being in a black neighborhood without a permit. Presumably this will not occur if the proposed amendments are made by Parliament, but Watson belittles the changes because they apply only to sports.

"And what are we working toward anyway?" Watson asks. "Separate development? With blacks playing against whites, whites playing against coloreds? Or are we working towards integration? But how can we be doing that when the whole government policy is splitting up the country into black homelands and how can we say then it is going to be different in sports?"

Craven, who admits the isolation has hurt South Africa's rugby standard, says the ostracism "hurts because it's unfair. We are rugby people; we are not politicians. If you want to hit the government, why hit us? Our players want to feel they are welcome where other countries are welcome."

But SACOS President Hassan Howa replies, "One cannot see the point of sportsmen saying our hands are tied in politics when 90 percent of the electorate are sportsmen or sports spectators." (Only whites vote for the central government in South Africa.)

White South Africa is eagerly looking forward to its first U.S.-Springbok tour starting Sept. 19 in Chicago, even if New York Mayor Ed Koch blocked a game scheduled Sept. 26. That game has since been switched to Rochester, N.Y.

But blacks are bitter about the tour. "I think if the U.S. accepts the tour, the 1984 Olympics will be badly affected," Howa said. "They will be condoning the racial policies of this country. Rugby is not a sports thing -- it's a political thing."