Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
3 September 2014
ATHLETIC PARK in Wellington, New Zealand, was a much loved headquarters of the game in the Capital city for over a 100 years. It was finally closed in 1999 and the game in Wellington shifted to the Westpac Stadium in the city centre.
Everyone who played on Athletic Park's surface in its heyday had favourite memories. Here are those of the great lock forward Colin Meads.
MEADS ON ATHLETIC PARK:
He first played for the All Blacks there in the first test match against Australia in 1958. His last game there was in 1973 for the NZRFU’s president’s XV when they beat the All Blacks on their internal tour.
In all Meads played ten test matches on Athletic Park, a record for a New Zealand player and as the ground is no longer in operation his record will not be broken.
“‘From a New Zealand point of view it was my favourite test ground,’ Meads said. ‘Everything seemed to go right there. The ground had such an atmosphere, and was the one I had most success at.’
Meads played in seven winning tests on the park, his other games being a 9-all draw with Australia in 1962, a 20-5 loss to Australia in 1964 and a 13-3 loss to the British Lions, as captain, in 1971.
Meads witnessed two of the best-remembered moments on Athletic Park: All Black fullback Don Clarke’s sideline conversion in a southerly gale in 1961, which helped the All Blacks to a 5-3 win, and Pierre Villepreux’s massive penalty goal for France in 1968, when the All Blacks won 9-3. “‘It was unbelievable, Clarkie kicked it straight across the field and it went over,’ Meads said. ‘Don was pretty confident he’d judged it right, but really it was the biggest bloody fluke around.’
For Villepruex’s kick, some estimates put its distance at well over 60m Meads doesn’t argue. “To me it sounded like about 70 yards. When he lined it up the crowd was laughing and we were saying ‘what a joke.’ But over she went. It cleared the bar with a bit to spare too. Bloody amazing.”
Colin Meads test record on Athletic Park; 1958-71
1958 beat Australia (1st test) 25-3
1959 beat British Isles (2nd test) 11-8
1961 beat France (2nd test) 5-3
1962 drew with Australia (1st test) 9-9
1964 lost to Australia (3rd test) 5-20
1965 beat South Africa(1st test) 6-3
1966 beat British Isles (2nd test) 16-12
1967 beat Australia (75th Jubilee test) 29-9
1968 beat France (2nd test) 9-3
1971 lost to British Isles (3rd Test) 13-3
When the last test match was played on Athletic Park (New Zealand beat France 54-7, 26 June 1999) Colin Meads was asked for his most vivid recollections;
Best Memory; “My greatest memory of playing there was when I captained the President’s XV against the All Blacks in 1973. It was a farewell for me and a great occasion…and we won the game!”
Worst Memory; “We got beaten there in 1964 by Australia. We had won the first two tests but lost the third 20-5 on Athletic Park. It was a thrashing and the last time I featured for the All Blacks as a loose forward.”
Hawkes Bay's Cyril Brownlie is sent off at Twickenham but the 'Invincible' All Blacks still fight hard with 14 men for a 17-11 win over England.
It was with great sadness but with a sense of inevitability that the famous Athletic Park ground in Wellington, New Zealand was pulled down in 2000. For over 100 years it had been known as the ‘Home of Rugby in New Zealand’.
Situated in the base of a high-sided valley running down to Cook Strait, Athletic Park was always in an exposed position, and was battered many times over the years by ferocious Wellington winds. The salty spray contributed to decay in the metallic stability of the double-tiered Millard Stand and after much local angst a decision was made to abandon the site for rugby and move to a new stadium in the city area of Wellington.
While there were many famous days on the superb playing surface, for both Wellington and All Black rugby, it is for its most infamous bad weather days that many remember Athletic Park most fondly.
The worst came in 1961 when the Wellington Rugby Union’s new pride and joy – the Millard Stand – was being ofﬁcially opened on the day of the France v New Zealand match. The southerly storm that weekend brought in winds gusting up to 80 mph (140 km/h) – one of the worst days in Wellington’s history. A large luxury liner, the Canberra, was so buffeted in Cook Strait that the ship could not enter the harbour, just a few miles away. Yet in this tempest a test match was played!
New Zealand won 5–3, with Don Clarke, the All Black fullback, kicking a sideline conversion that travelled across the wind in a crazy curving arc.
Athletic Park has also had its moments in the mud, no more so than in 1977 when the British Lions played the New Zealand Juniors. Not a single player from either side could be recognised at the end of the game.
But Athletic Park could be as effective a playing location as anywhere in the world and on its many top days, presented a ﬂat true ground and seating for the fans that was always close to the action. The record attendance was the 57,000 who crammed in to watch the second test between New Zealand and the British Isles in 1959.
New Zealand played its ﬁrst home test match at Athletic Park, against Great Britain in 1904. In the 1980s the All Blacks scored some handsome wins on the ground, including 42–15 v England in 1985, 46–15 v Argentina in the World Cup in 1987, and 49–12 v Argentina in 1989. In 1992 New Zealand beat a strong World XV 54–26 and in 1997 they posted the highest test score on the ground, beating Argentina by 93-8.
In its last years it became obvious that the facilities which are needed to service a modern rugby match were not all present at Athletic Park. It had very poor players’ changing rooms; there was one shabby function room and no permanent corporate boxes. And though there were some fierce debates about the ground’s future, the advantages of a new stadium in the city were overwhelming. The last test match was played on June 1999. Fittingly the All Blacks gave the old ground a great send off, beating France 54-7.
How did the 1902-05 England and Great Britain player D.D.Dobson die?