Stadiums of the past: Athletic Park

By Dylan Cleaver

The All Blacks perform a haka in front of the Athletic Park crowd prior to their match against France in 1999
The All Blacks perform a haka in front of the Athletic Park crowd prior to their match against France in 1999

ATHLETIC PARK

Home of Wellington and New Zealand Rugby

1st test: NZ 9 British & Irish Lions 3, 1904

Last test: NZ 54 France 7, 1999

Capacity when closed: 39,000

The enduring memory most people have of Athletic Park is the Millard Stand, an uncovered, steepling, gravity-defying edifice that loomed over the suburbs of Berhampore and Newtown.

Those with longer memories, like commentator and author Keith Quinn, who grew up in the shadow of Athletic Park, say the truly iconic part of the stadium was the bleacher section the Millard Stand replaced when it was erected in 1961.

"Locals would say that all the rugby knowledge of New Zealand would gather on the Western Bank," Quinn says.

"There was great sadness when it was announced that the Western Bank was going.

"In those days you couldn't book tickets and people would literally camp outside the ground overnight to make sure they got a spot there."

Such a time was August 1, 1959, when 59,000 folk watched the Lions beat Wellington 21-6. The Lions played three matches at Athletic Park on that tour, beating Wellington and the NZ Juniors comfortably, but losing the test 8-11.

They were queuing early three years earlier as well, when the mighty Boks made their way around New Zealand, also stopping three times in Wellington, beating Wellington and New Zealand but losing to NZ Universities.

"People camped out overnight before the test," Quinn says.

"The great commentator Winston McCarthy would call out over the tannoy, 'Close up on the Western Bank, close up on the Western Bank. There's still thousands waiting to get in'."

By 1961 the bank was gone and the stand was up. It got a test of its integrity that same year when France played New Zealand in a hurricane-force southerly that saw parts of the stand closed.

French writer Denis Lalanne, in his tour book La melee fantastique, described Athletic Park as a "desolate, cyclone-swept stadium... pitiful and at the same time wonderful".

Athletic Park was the home of New Zealand rugby. For many years All Black teams were announced in the dingy rooms below the Main Stand following the final trial, which was always played at the park. But it was not an exclusively rugby domain.

Football's Chatham Cup was originally played at the ground, which has also played host to religious and royal pageantry, and bands like Dire Straits and U2.

Really though, it is the national sport that stirs the memories.

There was Don Clarke's miracle conversion across the gale to win that infamous 61 test against France 5-3.

There was the All Blacks playing a 'perfect' 40 mins in the wind, mud and rain on the way to beating Australia 43-6 in 1996, and there was "Bernie's corner" where All Black and Wellington wing Bernie Fraser would dot down with regularity.

As the millennium approached, Athletic Park wasn't looking any younger.

"You could write a chapter about the toilets," Quinn said.

"The men's toilets were so disgusting I'd hold on until I'd driven back home rather than take my chances in those vile caverns. If the men's were bad the women were treated unbelievably poorly. I remember once seeing a queue of women outside one lonely Portaloo. It was a terribly demeaning sight."

Rather than applying lipstick to a pig, Wellington boldly created a shiny new playground on the waterfront.

Quinn was involved in the move to Westpac Stadium, endearingly known as the Cake Tin.

The new place is much nicer, is central, built to last and has plenty of clean lavatories for everyone.

Still, Quinn can't help but miss the old place where he spent so many mostly happy hours.

"Oh, it was terribly sad, but you knew it had to happen," he says.

"It was stuck out in the suburbs, it was run down and if you got a Wellington southerly it was a terrible place to be."

A retirement village takes the brunt of the wind now.

Unless you know the history, you'd have to look pretty closely for clues to the old park on either Adelaide Rd or Rintoul St, which used to frame the stadium.

Bernie's Corner is probably somebody's living room, the roar of the crowd replaced by the whistling of the kettle.

MONDAY Carlaw Park
TUESDAY: Lancaster Park
WEDNESDAY: Newmarket Park
TOMORROW: Carisbrook

- NZ Herald

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