South Africa's rugby team, the Springboks, played the third and final match of its controversial, two-week American tour in virtual secrecy Friday in Schenectady, N.Y., but even before the game was played, opponents and supporters of the tour say they had achieved their goals and made their points.

That the three games of the tour were played at all -- one was played under heavy police protection in Albany, N.Y., and another at a site in Racine, Wis., that was not announced in advance -- was considered a victory by the American rugby community, which had hoped the Springboks tour would help stimulate the development of the sport in the United States.

"We got a lot of publicity, whether we asked for it or not," said Keith Seaber, secretary of the United States Rugby Football Union. "I honestly feel this will bring new blood into the game, new players. A lot of young people will want to get involved in this sport. It's a good, healthy, body-contact sport, and a lot of young Americans will want to try it out."

Opponents of the tour say the protests and threats of disruptions effectively thwarted any hopes the South African government may have had to use the Springboks as ambassadors of good will in this country.

Richard Lapchick is the national chairman of the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sports and Society (ACCESS), the umbrella organization of civil rights and religious organizations that opposed the tour because of the South African system of racial separation, or apartheid. "We think in many ways there has been a real defeat of any propaganda value the tour may have had," he said.

In the last five years, the popularity of rugby has increased dramatically in the United States, and there are an estimated 1,000 rugby clubs in the U.S. with a total of approximately 60,000 active players.

But the caliber of play here has never approached its level in other countries such as South Africa, where it is a major sport. Organizers of the tour had hoped the Springboks' matches would help improve the quality of the game in America in addition to increasing its popularity. They claim that this goal has been achieved, although the Springboks won all three of their American matches handily.

"Our players have now had the opportunity to play against world-class competition," said the rugby union's Seaber. "This inevitably will improve the playing ability of these players. They will go back to their individual clubs and put to good use the lessons they have learned on the playing field. Inevitably, it will raise standards of rugby across the country."

Throughout the Springboks' tour, members of the American rugby community have denied that the matches have had political overtones, and they say that they also find the system of apartheid repugnant.

Lapchick of ACCESS says he finds such a position untenable. "The government of South Africa consistently uses sports contacts with other nations as a propaganda device to soften public attitudes towards apartheid. We believe all sports contacts with South Africa should be terminated to increase the likelihood of change within that nation."

Counters Ed Hagerty, editor of Rugby magazine and a veteran rugby player: "It never had any political significance to us. We did what we wanted to do. We gave our players a chance to play against this incredible team. We support the right of the demonstrators to protest, but we also felt we had an inalienable right to play the game. The protesters got their point across, which is fine. We wish it hadn't been protested, but we also wish it hadn't been raining (at Tuesday's match in Albany). We had no control over either."