Jubilee Park used to be Northland's premier rugby league ground, but has now fallen into disrepair with an uncertain future. In the second of a three-part investigation, reporter Adam Pearse looks into the park's famed history with two local league stalwarts.
"It all started in a hay paddock."
That was how Whangārei's Jubilee Park was described in a story on page nine of the Northern Advocate on Wednesday, July 22, 1964, previewing the game between France and the North Island Māori rugby league teams at the venue.
The article describes a time 30 years prior when the land - which now sits alongside Tarewa Rd near the centre of town - was just a normal cow paddock, a musty old haystack standing plumb in its centre.
It wasn't until ex-Kiwi and All Black George Gillett prompted the then Northland Rugby League members to pool their resources and develop the ground in 1936, initially named Cossill's Park before it was changed to Jubilee Park.
The park went on to host a number of international rugby league teams, including Great Britain in August 1936 (the visitors beating Northland 34-nil) along with an American All Stars team and Australia in the 1950s around the same time a wooden grandstand was built.
Now, Jubilee Park's illustrious history is all but forgotten as its field and buildings lie in ruin. The ground's clubrooms, which were ravaged by a 2016 fire, held much of the park's legacy in photos, trophies and records - now turned to ash.
There are few who know more of Jubilee Park's place in Northland rugby league history than Val McDonald and Harry Clyde.
McDonald, 65, moved to Northland from Auckland in 1976 at 22 years of age and played for Portland for about 12 years on the wing and at hooker.
After representing Northland, McDonald went on to manage and coach the Northland men's team as well as becoming the head of Whangārei City and Districts Rugby League Incorporated - the current owners of the park.
Clyde, 73, started playing league in Northland from about 1976 and would go on to spend about 40 years in the game. A proud Takahiwai halfback, Clyde made the Northland team a couple of years later, which was announced after a game at Jubilee Park.
Both men are now long out of the game but their passion for rugby league in Northland is obvious. Traipsing through the overgrown grass around the park's grandstand, they both chuckled as stories of the golden age of regional rugby league came to mind.
"When you ran out, you'd see the people on the bank here and you'd hear your mother in the grandstand [yelling], 'C'mon boy'," Clyde said.
"You'd just get a big thrill in the old heart whether it was grand final day or an important match... the crowd would just roar."
As Jubilee Park was the regular venue for club grand finals, McDonald fondly remembered the days when players would warm-up by bucketing out sand on to the field to dry up wet spots before the game.
But as nostalgic as their return to Jubilee Park was, both were dismayed to see Northland's great symbol of rugby league in tatters.
"It's certainly pretty sad seeing it in this state," McDonald said.
"It's a bloody eyesore every time you go past, there's the fence knocked down... the place is a mess and I'd hate to be a neighbour here."
The park's future is currently under negotiation. Clyde said while he would love to see rugby league played at Jubilee again, he felt an agreement which supported the struggling Northland rugby league clubs was a good option.
"The best way I'd see is to lease it out and get some money back into the league, especially with our Northern Swords team driving all the way to Wellington to play a game [this year], it's pretty sad really."
Rugby League Northland general manager Phil Marsh, who lived only two minutes away from the park, said it was disheartening to see the crown jewel of Northland rugby league in such a state.
"It's sad to see the state of the fence up the top and the homeless people living in the changing rooms, it's really sad to see," he said.
"It was and is still thought of as the home of rugby league, [I'm] doubtful it'll ever go back that way."
Marsh said in an ideal future, he would have rugby league return to Jubilee Park. However, in a world where league funding was drying up, Marsh hoped the park's owners could find a solution which gave back to the sport.
Special thanks to Graham Pitts and Terry Smart
Tomorrow: The future of Jubilee Park.