All Blacks heading back to Bay

By Doug Laing

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The All Blacks will meet Argentina in front of a crowd of almost 23,000 in McLean Park, Napier, next September. Photo/Warren Buckland
The All Blacks will meet Argentina in front of a crowd of almost 23,000 in McLean Park, Napier, next September. Photo/Warren Buckland

Napier is set to stage one of Hawke's Bay's biggest sports events with confirmation of an All Blacks Rugby Championship test against Argentina at McLean Park next year.

The New Zealand Rugby Union has announced the test will be a night game on September 6, with plans for a crowd of about 22,750.

Temporary grandstands will be erected on the 102-year-old park's scoreboard embankment for the first time, for what will be the fifth of six home tests being played by the All Blacks in 2014.

It's expected to be a huge boost to local economies, the All Blacks test against France in New Plymouth in June injected $4.53 million into the Taranaki economy, attracted about 7500 visitors to the region and a match sell-out of 23,436 fans.

It was about that time Napier City Council major projects committee chairman and former Hawke's Bay Rugby Union (HBRU) board member Mark Herbert suggested to Hawke's Bay Rugby Union CEO Mike Bishop the region should try to get a game.

The council was soon behind the bid, and in September agreed to underwrite costs up to $250,000.

Bill Dalton, who like other councillors fully supported that move a few weeks before his election as mayor, last night commended the work of Mr Bishop and HBRU chairman Brendan Mahony in negotiating the arrangement, which he says will have "enormous" benefits for Napier and the rest of Hawke's Bay.

"It's going to be great for the city and we're very excited about it," he said.

A son of former All Black Doug Dalton, the mayor said he hoped it was just the first of a number of events to be unveiled for Napier "... not only of a sporting nature".

He stressed the council, which is in the process of appointing an events co-ordinator, won't be running events, but is happy to partner those organisations which do.

Mr Herbert said that initially he'd been keen on Napier staging one of the three tests against England, but, greeting the news of an Argentine match, said: "We're not going to complain."

The match is expected to draw the next-biggest crowd for any stadium event in Hawke's Bay after the 26,000-plus for two of Hawke's Bay's 1967-1969 Ranfurly Shield defences, and more than 25,000 for Rod Stewart's Mission Concert last year.

The All Blacks' only previous match in Hawke's Bay was on June 7, 1996 against Samoa, the first floodlit rugby test in New Zealand, and the first time the All Blacks had played a home test match outside of the four main centres of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

There were no Hawke's Bay players in that match, but when Argentina played their only match in Napier, on June 14, 1997, the New Zealand Maori opposition, who won 39-17, included star Hawke's Bay fullback Jarrod Cunningham, former Hawke's Bay captain Norm Hewitt, and future Magpies skipper Mutu Ngarimu.

At the time of the 1996 test, with McLean Park packed with fewer than 18,000 people, hopes were that the ground would host second-tier tests about once every three years. But preference was given later to other grounds needing a financial boost in the burgeoning new professional rugby era.

There were no details on whether costs include any fee or guarantee to the New Zealand union, but staging the match required guarantees on seated ground capacity, leading to negotiations with the country's biggest provider of temporary seating, Auckland-based Acrow.

HBRU commercial manager Jay Campbell confirmed the all-seats plan, and there will be no general admission. "The embankment will be out of action on the night and will instead form part of a temporary seat structure that can seat over 13,000 patrons including in front of the Harris Stand."

The seating will complement that already available in the four permanent grandstands.

McLean Park has been the scene of three other rugby tests, Canada's Rugby World Cup matches against Tonga in 1987 and France and Japan in 2011.

Napier also figured in two All Blacks RWC campaigns. It was a training base before the side's success in 1987 and just before the 1995 tournament in South Africa, McLean Park was the venue for the final trial, with a "Probables" team billed as a "shadow" test XV.

The park has been involved in other historic sporting moments, including 1972 when the second half of Hawke's Bay's match against Australia was the first top-level rugby to be televised live in New Zealand; and in 1979 when New Zealand played Pakistan for their first home cricket test outside of the main centres.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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