Stadiums from the past: Carlaw Park

By Dylan Cleaver

The old Railway Grandstand at Carlaw Park in 1985. Photo / NZ Herald
The old Railway Grandstand at Carlaw Park in 1985. Photo / NZ Herald

When West Ham waved goodbye to their beloved Boleyn, more commonly known as Upton Park, they did so in riotous fashion, smashing up the Manchester United team bus and then beating them 3-2 on the field. When we farewell out stadia, it's normally a much more sedate affair, writes Dylan Cleaver*, as he profiles five iconic grounds over the next week.

CARLAW PARK
New Zealand's home of league
1st test: NZ 16 England 8, 1924
Last test: NZ 74 Tonga 0, 1999
Capacity when closed: 17,000

A little more than 4500 paying customers rattled around in Carlaw Park when the Kiwis played their final test at the not-so-grand old lady of league.

The 74-0 trouncing of an overmatched Tonga was a subdued farewell to the city fringe ground that remains lamented even 17 years later. It is lamented not so much for what it was at the end - a decrepit dung-heap of a ground - but what it could have been.

As Auckland's sporting fraternity drool over the prospect of a rectangular, boutique stadium in or on the fringe of the CBD to service the three main winter codes, it is hard to forget that there once was a gift horse staring them in the mouth.

Sure, it would have taken a bit of work to bring Carlaw Park up to speed, but the footprint was there is the town's burghers could just see past the rotting stands , the boggy ground that rose up in one corner and the at times overpowering stench of urine that made the first 10 minutes after halftime an olfactory challenge.

Last year, the Herald took Kiwis legend Des White back to the park he graced as a player for Ponsonby, Auckland and the Kiwis, and later as a broadcaster. Now living in Pukekohe and the recipient of five hip replacement operations, White looked bewildered as he wandered around the student village that now occupies the site.

"When did all this happen?" he asked in amazement.

"It's disappointing because this was a great place for spectators. At no other ground could you get as close to the game as you did here."

But what was it like for players?

"Great... when you won. Not so good when you lost."



White recalled the famous test against France in 1951 when the tricolores were indisputably the best team in the world. It was a vicious encounter. Jimmy Haig and George Menzies were left with fractured facial bones after being headbutted and there was a long delay when France hooker Martin Martin refused to leave the field after being sent off.

With time up on the clock and the 11 men of the Kiwis - no injury replacements in those days - trailing the 12 of France by one, White was given the opportunity to win the game with a sideline penalty. His opposite, the brilliant and irascible Puig Albert, tossed him the ball and with a Gallic shrug of his shoulders said, "No chance."

The boys sitting in the trees at the Parnell end of the ground were the first to tell White that his kick was good: New Zealand won 16-15.

Watch: League great Des White shares his memories of Carlaw Park

Video



White tried to find the spot where he took the kick. The railway line provided a vague reference point but without the creaking wooden stand in front of it, it was difficult.

Carlaw Park wasn't just reserved for rep matches. In the halcyon days of the Fox Memorial Trophy, City-Newton v Ponsonby would attract crowds of more than 10,000. The park was the focal point for the mainly blue-collar community.

Carlaw Park was a big day out for the stevedores and the boys on the chain at the freezing works and while it is a lazy generalisation to say the park's clientele were all working class, there was an undeniable chasm between them and the members stand at Eden Park.

Those people and the park meant a lot to White. He felt a spiritual attachment to the place. As he surveyed the site his eyes would scan left and right, looking for clues and reminders.

"Progress, I suppose," he said of the kitset village in its place.

TOMORROW: Lancaster Park

* Some of this material is sourced from a multimedia feature on Auckland's lost playgrounds, which can be read here.

- NZ Herald

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