Carlaw Park chapter closes

By Peter Jessup

By PETER JESSUP

Carlaw Park is history. The Auckland Rugby League has finally accepted that with the Warriors on the verge of signing to stay at Ericsson Stadium for 10 years there will be no driving force to redevelop it.

The ARL has entered a partnership with investment bankers and developers Willis-Bond, who will determine the best commercial opportunities for the land.

"We have to approach this on a commercial basis, no emotion involving the Warriors or anything else," said board member and accountant Cameron MacGregor.

There were two imperatives to redevelopment of Carlaw as a league stadium, MacGregor said.

One was the Warriors making it their home. The second was Auckland City Council input.

The board was not set on rebuilding Carlaw. "If the city council went ahead with a 20,000-plus seat Quay Park [on land by the waterfront] we'd sell Carlaw tomorrow and book into it."

What the board ultimately wants is a long-term income. A stadium could be the worst option - stadiums don't generally make money.

There's plenty of emotion involved at Carlaw Park. The stands are so close to the ground fans can hear the wind crushed from the ribcages of tackled players, see the pain on faces and smell the liniment.

The Kiwis played 59 of 95 home tests there between 1924 and 1995, before the old, wooden stand, the holes in the corrugated iron roof of the Domain stand, the lack of corporate and media facilities and parking sent the New Zealand Rugby league first to the shiny, new North Harbour Stadium at Albany, then to Ericsson, where the Warriors were based from inception.

But league is not Carlaw Park's only claim to fame.

Evangelist Billy Graham drew a big crowd there as did super groups The Eagles, Santana, Black Sabbath and Status Quo.

Boxing was also big in the early days, too. Soccer was played and supercross raced there.

The ground has long had drainage problems, prompting Australian reporters to tell how flooding was caused by the high tide.

And the field has a high in the Domain corner, the last metres of touch curving up hill. It's been there since the 1920s, when volunteers converted what was a market garden using horse-drawn equipment, picks and shovels. The old house on the ground was shifted and turned into the first dressing rooms.

The land was owned by the Auckland Hospital Board and leased to a Mr Ah Chee. League had been played in the Domain but competition from other sports prompted the search for a dedicated home field and in 1920 the ARL secured a long-term lease.

The park was opened on Saturday June 25 the following year by Mayor of Auckland James Gunson (later Sir James) and local MP Arthur Myers, the brewery his family founded still associated with league through sponsorship via Lion Red.

The chairman of the ARL management committee that secured the land and developed the ground was James Carlaw and it was named for him.

The match that day was between 1920 Auckland champions Maritime and new club City. Entry was a shilling for men, sixpence for women and children. Lights were added for training and the following year the park hosted its first night game, a rarity in those days.

The 1924 Lions were the first tourists to play there, beaten 8-16. In 1928 the touring Lions attracted a ground record that still stands, 28,000. The Kiwis won 17-13. That prompted the ARL to rebuild the "Railway" stand, increasing seating from 640 to 2000. In the 1960s the 7500-capacity concrete Domain stand was built, essentially covering the existing grass seating.

In 1974 the ARL bought the property from the Hospital Board for $200,000. It has since paid another $274,000 for surrounding lots, including the embankment on which the Railway Stand sits, for an all-up cost of $474,000. The present value is $13 million and climbing.

The current maintenance costs are around $250,000, covered by income of $250,000 from car parking and a minimal further amount from gate receipts for club and national league games and lower-grade representative matches.

Carlaw Park would have been the ideal venue for the Warriors - close to the city, leagues club 100m up the road and ready access to rail for fans, the bulk of whom come from south and west Auckland. But nobody did anything to make it happen.

By 1994 the 35 clubs that vote for representation on the ARL and which each have a chunk of ownership of it had voted to sell the park. They have repeated that vote several times since and each time it has been overruled by the board. Until now.

The Kiwi Ferns will be the last test side to play there when they meet a Maori selection, then Queensland in September.

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