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.”
Coach Gordon Tietjens and injured captain Eric Rush led the team in Mar del Plata, Argentina. NZ beat Australia 31-12 in the final.
Transvaal and South Africa
29 internationals for South Africa 1993-96
The Springbok flanker who had a relatively short time at the top in test rugby, but who played a huge role in the game in a number of ways. Francois Pienaar is remembered best for receiving the 1995 Rugby World Cup from his President, Nelson Mandela, after winning the dramatic final for South Africa on Ellis Park in 1995. In another completely different way, by his actions, Pienaar also played a significant role in the prevention of rugby going to the rebel professional World Rugby Corporation in the same year.
Pienaar first came into the Springbok team in 1993 against France. He was made captain from the very start of his tests, a rare feat (only Basil Kenyon and Des van Jaarsveld had also done that for South Africa). Still, Pienaar did have a paltry total of experience, just 16 tests, when two years later, he was charged with the task of leading the Springboks into their first World Cup. Added to that was the pressure on him of not failing in a World Cup being played effectively in his new country. The whole of South Africa’s new ‘Rainbow Nation’ looked to Francois Pienaar and the coach Kitch Christie to bring home the gold.
And they certainly did. In an exultant moment for the South Africa nation, who were finding a new way forward, the win over New Zealand, by 15-12 in extra time, was massive lift for the new nation’s confidence. Given the years when South Africa had been scorned for its apartheid policies, what an image was created for the entire world to see when a young white man accepted the trophy from his black leader.
In that moment Francois Pienaar was guaranteed a lifetime’s recognition. He had played well in the tournament, he led his team superbly, had conveyed a confidence all the way through, to the whole country. Seconds after the final whistle he led his team to dipin prayers of gratitude, right in the centre-field at Ellis Park. In other words for the deeply religious country he did everything right.
Yet only months later he was embroiled in the greatest threat the amateur game of rugby had ever faced. The World Rugby Corporation had been formed to seek ways to change the structure of the world rugby scene and change it from its old amateur ways. The world’s top players were targeted with offers of money, contracted sums so large apparently, that they could not be refused. The WRC went hard at securing the South African players for a new world professional circuit. The WRC took the view that because they had won the World Cup South Africa must be the target to lead the new direction.
So the pressure went on to Francois Pienaar. He was offered huge sums to lead all of the other World Cup winners to the new monetary version of rugby. To be fair, leading All Blacks, Wallabies and British and Irish players were also being besieged by WRC and sign up. Pienaar though was the first to crack. He elected to stay with the counter-offer from Louis Luyt of the South African Rugby Union and with other collapses of confidence the strong bid by WRC failed. Had Pienaar gone with the new idea world rugby would have been vastly different. As it transpired the International Rugby Board sensing the groundswell and desires of modern attitudes within months, themselves, had changed the game from being all-amateur to being totally professional.
Francois Pienaar’s career at the top lasted one more year. He led the Springboks on the European tour in the first Springbok tour of the new era and in 1996 he took part in the first Tri Nations series with New Zealand and Australia. He international career ended when, still as skipper, he was carried off at Cape Town in the second test against the All Blacks.
He left the country soon after to become a player/coach at the prestigious Saracens Club in London.
Who was the New Zealand test cricketer who played one rugby test for England?