Malcolm Boyle: Bad old days are still with us

Carlaw Park has been the scene of many a tall tale - on and off the field.
Photo / Getty Images
Carlaw Park has been the scene of many a tall tale - on and off the field. Photo / Getty Images

Hold the phone - news just in. Auckland City bureaucrats have felled another forest in producing their latest report on the region's stadium situation and, still, nobody's happy.

Generally, it is a lightweight document which seeks to bail Eden Park out of its current financial predicament by delivering to the Rugby World Cup's white elephant any event likely to attract a crowd of 25,000-plus.

This, of course, leaves Mt Smart as an also-ran. Goodness knows how the popular rugby league ground is expected to cope with last-minute hospitality decisions based largely on crowd walk-up predictions. Furthermore, how, and by whom, will scheduling clashes be impartially resolved?

Rugby league will cope because it has had to over the past 100 years. Prejudice against the 13-man game is almost legendary but it is now growing at an extraordinary rate in New Zealand based on the runaway broadcasting, merchandising and marketing success of the NRL in Australia and New Zealand.

The bias against league has given the game a steely resolve, coupled with the doggedness of a number of grassroots administrators who grew what they had into a multimillion-dollar business today.

But it was not always like this. Stories abound about the horrendous state of the two Carlaw Park fields. In heavy rain, oil mingled with ankle-deep mud and players suffered constant infections.

In one terrible incident, Ponsonby-Maritime prop forward Dilworth Karaka broke his leg so badly it had to be amputated. Karaka, who was tipped as a star of the future, later became a leading member of the band Herbs.

Test matches seemed always to be played in a quagmire of mud, turf and sand, much to the chagrin of touring international sides. These disgraceful conditions, which would have put Wellington's old Athletic Park to shame, were not confined to on-field inadequacies.

The shop at Carlaw Park was renowned for its less than adequate cuisine. One 1980s' owner (himself a former league player) had been having problems with stock losses in the confectionary area. He was referring to the large brown rodents visiting the premises on a daily basis to feast on the Crunchy bars on its shelves.

Fortunately, no customers were aware of the nocturnal visitors and the shopowner simply smoothed the chocolate over the nibbles and carefully re-used the wrapping. At one stage the owner was puzzled about stock disappearing from the shop on the terrace side of the ground. He watched the place for days and found a family of five transients living in the grandstand. More than once I sat in the old grandstand bleachers and saw rats running beneath my feet.

Notwithstanding these spectator challenges, there was still a character about the ground which in the 1970s and 80s was the scene of some magnificent rugby league. Carlaw Park survived the test of the ages. It eventually became so valuable a property that the administrators of the game decided it could be best put to use to benefit the game as a prime real estate investment.

Surely now is the time for the godfathers of Auckland planning to recognise rugby league as a sport on equal footing with others. Talk about putting a speedway track in a multi-event facility is nonsense and an insult to the people who now patronise rugby league as their increasingly preferred football option.

Start from the premise that rugby league deserves its own home and facilities that acknowledge the growing popularity of the game in Auckland and New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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