It never hurts to look back; the last test on Wellington's beloved Athletic Park

It never hurts to look back; the last test on Wellington's beloved Athletic Park

8 March 2015

Memories of dear Athletic Park. The ground in the suburb of Berhampore in Wellington, New Zealand was called 'The Home of Rugby' on a sign inside the ground. But its time as 'HQ' for rugby in Wellington had to end. By 1999 the facilities at the very famous field were old, rusty and literally in danger of collapsing in some places. After rugby had been played there for over 100 years a brand new stadium had been built downtown (in what we know now as Westpac Stadium). So we locals came to that very sad but inevitable day in 1999 - when the last test ever was played on 'our' home ground.

The problem with Athletic Park had become mostly about its location. It had been built in the late 19th century at the top of a valley rising upwards from the coastal winds of the Cook Strait. Never was a more vulnerable place constructed as an attraction for the wild southerlies the city has been notorious for - or for its nasty cousin, the full blast northerlies which invariably followed.

After one particularly bad day in 1996 when heavy rain was added to the mix but on a day when the All Blacks beat Australia the winning margin of 43-6 was overlooked by the Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Union Richie Guy when he said facilities for test rugby at the ground 'are no longer good enough.'

Indeed they were not. The percentage of covered seats for big crowds was about 25% - the rest was outdoors in whatever tempests any day could throw in; there were no corporate seats put on for that fast-emerging need seeing rugby had gone professional; the press facilities were open to the wind with hardly any access to power or electronics; the TV camera positions blocked out hundreds of fans views - and worst of all, the post-game showers for the players often did not work. The sight of muddied half-naked All Blacks trotting down the narrow corridor under the grandstand after a game while searching for warm water had become common.

There was one other thing too; toilet memories at Athletic Park are a true horror. For the men it was bad enough, a dungeon with an excruciating stench was the only teeth-clenching option behind the open-topped Millard Stand. For women it was worse. A lone Portable Toilet behind the older of the two grandstands often created a queue of anxious females which stretched to dozens of people. On one day it was shameful to see the Governor-General Dame Sylvia Cartwright waiting in line during a halftime break. Things HAD to change.

But first this picture taken on the day of the last test match. 26th June 1999 when New Zealand ran out to play the French team. The All Blacks played with a 'beautiful' southerly wind behind it in the first half and quite simply 'blew' France away. In the halftime huddle the French contemplated a 0-30 scoreboard. Even in the second half they could do little better. New Zealand scored 24 more points into the wind and might have won 54-0 but for an intercept try by flyhalf Ugo Mola. For the record Tana Umaga scored a treble of tries for New Zealand while Christian Cullen and Justin Marshall got two each. It was a top win by the Taine Randell captained All Blacks.

For the record there were lots of photographs taken that day by an increased number of pressmen present - and by thousands of fans (among the 38,000  present). Everyone wanted to keep a record of a sad but very necessary day for rugby in the capital. The picture attached to this story is just one of them...

The All Blacks are running out from under the old 'Main' Grandstand heading towards the Millard Stand. The open-topped stand, when it opened in 1991 was originally considered a state-of-the-art view of the game. It is hard to believe now but there were no, repeat no, toilet facilities on that grandstand. The nearest place of relief was the separate and foul-smelling building behind.

To climb to the highest point of the top deck took an Everest effort. To be fair the view of the game and over the surrounding suburbs right down to Island Bay was truly memorable. You can see the filming box at the top of the Millard stand. By the mid-1990s it was considered far too high for modern video coverage of the games and was used on this day by the Sky TV commentators and their French TV colleagues. They all sat on seats covered in hundreds of recent seagull droppings. The New Zealanders were deeply embarrassed. The separate TVNZ commentaries were done in a low-slung box at the front of the top deck which you can just see. At every test people who had paid good money for a halfway view but who could not see the near touchline complained loudly. It was never pleasant to commentate from there in the ground's last years.

For the record; your correspondent can claim a small part of the drive for improved toilets at Westpac Stadium. I can recall making several submissions to the new stadium planners. So there now you will see 50/50% men and women's bathrooms right around the stadium - and in the modern media centre there are private men's and women's bathrooms! I hope I am a modest person but I'll take a bow here!

[For the record; two other interesting points from the game. One of the French team was sent off for stomping with five minutes to go. He was Jean-Jacques Crenca the replacement hooker. He was only on the field for seven minutes of action. Some sort of record?

And despite this loss to the All Blacks (the 7-54 margin was then the heaviest defeat in French rugby history) 4 months later France beat New Zealand by 43-31 at Twickenham in a Rugby World Cup semi-final. Only seven French players started in both games but 11 All Blacks started in both.]



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