The earthquake-induced demolition of historic Lancaster Park in Christchurch signals the end of one of New Zealand's last great original sporting arenas. For generations of one-eyed red-and-black fans, it was the scene of countless sporting memories and joys. The Herald's Christchurch-based journalist Kurt Bayer looks back on Canterbury's theatre of dreams.
It could be a war zone. A shattered bombed-out nightmare. The ground thud-thud-thuds with batteries of heavy machinery and toppled pillars.
Standing on what was once the old half-way line, the exposed soil is pockmarked and sandy. Twiny remnants of astroturf are semi-buried amid candy-cane twists of rusty rebar and crushed concrete.
Today, as New Zealand's biggest ever demolition job rumbles on, it requires an Yvette Williams-sized leap of the imagination to conjure up the once-immaculate, manicured champagne turf that once lay here.
For 130 years, Lancaster Park played host to some of the most extraordinary moments in New Zealand sporting, and cultural, history: Richard Hadlee's 400th; double world records for Peter Snell; Ranfurly Shield fever; Springboks tests; Davis Cup victories; Pope and royal visits; U2 and Dire Straits concerts.
Childhood dreams were forged here; lovers met, and even wed; ashes spread and tears shed. David Latta could've cried; Ewen Chatfield technically died.
Home of rugby and cricket, it also hosted athletics, cycling, motor-cycling, rugby league, soccer, hockey and horse harness racing. During The Great War, the patch of prime land in the eastern suburb of Phillipstown was turned into a potato field to help with the war efforts.
At the southern entrance, on Stevens St, white stone memorial gates were built in 1924 to commemorate the sacrifice of Canterbury athletes during the 1914-18 war.
They are fenced off and will be the only living survivor of Lancaster Park's glittering history. The epicentre of the vicious, shallow magnitude-6.3 February 22, 2011, earthquake was just southeast of the stadium and caused significant damage. The new giant stands – the eastern Deans Stand and western Paul Kelly Stand built to host 2011 Rugby World Cup games which would eventually be moved elsewhere - withstood the violent shaking but had sunk and cracked.
Although insured for $143 million, the $255m-$275m repair bill was deemed too much and, in 2016, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel announced the stadium was uneconomic to repair, and would be "deconstructed".
The enormous two-year, $12m demolition project is nearing its end. The Tui Stand at the southern end was demolished last year, while the Hadlee Stand came down within months of the killer 2011 quake for safety reasons.
The vast stands have been picked apart, with just their concrete frames remaining. By January, the site should be cleared – 100,000 cubic metres of material, mainly concrete and reinforced steel hauled off and recycled elsewhere, to live another day.
In its latter years, it had several corporate names - Jade Stadium and AMI Stadium - but for most, it will always be Lancaster Park. My first memory of going there was with my dad. It was a Shell Cup cricket game, coloured-clothing, circa late 1980s. As with most halcyon childhood memories, it was a stinking hot summer's day. As we walked up the concrete stairs in the middle of the Number 3 stand, the blue sky up ahead of me slowly fell until I captured my first glimpse of the hallowed green turf. It made my heart leap, like a first love. Even today, I still get a remnant of that first feeling every time I enter a great sporting arena.
By the end of the long day's play, shielding our eyes to the westerly setting sun, the crowd, especially those sat shirtless on the giant red, rolled covers on the boundary's edge, was sunburnt and rowdy. I assume Canterbury won because I went home giddy and bouncing in the front seat, regaling the burly Auckland left-hander's (possibly John F Reid?) booming cover drives and hoicks onto the infamous terraced embankment.
Snippets of memory: "Give it a boot Robbie!'" chants; Watching New Zealand batsman Andrew Jones decimate back-foot drives in the practice nets only to berate himself colourfully for not hitting it hard enough; immaculate grass between your toes; slip catches with mates on the ancient "cradle" catching contraption in the rear Number 2 ground until your fingers joins when puffy, yellow and painful; Aravinda de Silva's surgical cut shot; Jonah Lomu's thighs; leftover roast chicken sandwiches gladwrapped for lunch; unable to see the ball from side-on when bowled by Waqar Younis or Allan Donald; Chris Cairns' black boots; sliding down the embankment banister with Mum's borrowed polystyrene chilly-bin, landing on it, and shattering it into one thousand tiny pieces; Larry the Lamb; barracking Richard Petrie in Wellington bee-colours for being a turncoat; the giant manual scoreboard; Richard Loe twisting big Bill Cavubati's fleshy arms until he screamed; the men's steaming, gag-reflexing urinals at halftimes; Andrew Mehrtens' stratospheric spiral punt; Mark Greatbatch muttering while jogging lengths after another tough day's play against the visiting Australians; North Canterbury legend's Bus Dunbar's side-stepping streak [RIP Bus]...
As a teenage cub reporter in the mid-1990s, my independent North Canterbury community newspaper boss Les Whiteside indulged me by letting me gain accreditation to photograph Canterbury and All Blacks matches. My brief was to capture my country region's star players – Richard Loe and Todd Blackadder mainly – in action for the twice-weekly paper. But in essence, it was fulfilling a childhood dream, while still basically a child, in getting sideline at the big games and feeling a part of things.
On game days – usually a Saturday with a 2.30pm or 3pm kick off – I'd arrive a good four hours early. I'd head straight for the media box at the top of the Number 3 stand. I'd grab a programme, nick two cans of DB or Canterbury Draught out of the always-well-stocked beer fridge, and scarper back downstairs. I'd roam the concrete corridors freely, hanging outside changing rooms. When Auckland smashed Canterbury 35-0 in 1995, I waltzed into the away side's changing sheds to watch them drink their posh DB Export off the face of the Log o' Wood. I snapped All Blacks prop Olo Brown sporting a shiner delivered by teammate Robin Brooke's misdirected scrum punch until someone finally questioned my presence and I scarpered.
Often I'd only photograph the first half of games. Then I'd jump the embankment fence and find my mates in the crowd and drink my two pilfered DBs. The crowd was raucous in the 90s, especially during Canterbury's 10-game Ranfurly Shield defence run. Crowds of 35,000-40,000 were commonplace. Packed to the rafters was a literal term, hanging off the advertising hoardings at the top of the stands. One old schoolmate used to smuggle in sticks to erect a 40-ft high flag. Others would climb the flagpoles while hapless coppers tried to coax them down while thousands of red-and-black rednecks roared them on. There was an atmosphere, loud and emotional, which rose when the team needed the boost, feeling that the next scrum could make or break the game open, urging them on. It stands in stark contrast to today's expectant, quiet and passively-demanding crowds at the temporary scaffolding stadium at Addington, so temporary that it's been there for seven long, unsheltered years.
Christchurch City Council has decided to retain Lancaster Park for "community use, sporting and recreational purposes".
A "spatial plan" for its redevelopment , which includes rugby and football fields, as well as cricket grounds and "informal, public open space", was released in July and will be considered at a council meeting on Thursday.
Lancaster Park – or AMI Stadium as it was by 2011 – was not perfect at the end. It was odd-shaped and too small for top-drawer cricket and hardly ideal for rugby either, especially in wind and rain.
But it was ours. And it was a red-and-black pilgrim's receptacle for sporting deeds past, and no doubt future, and whatever shape it takes in these uncertain post-quake years, one-eyed Cantabs hope it features a flat stretch of cultivated grass where you can kick your jandals off, wiggle your toes, and dream big.
LANCASTER PARK – A THEATRE OF DREAMS
• October 8, 1881: Lancaster Park officially opens.
• May 20, 1882: England v Colonies football match.
• September 21, 1882: The first big rugby match - Canterbury vs New South Wales.
• January 1912: Australasia defends Davis Cup tennis championship by beating USA.
• August 1920: Great Britain beat New Zealand in rugby league.
• January 1930: New Zealand plays its first ever cricket test match against Marylebone Cricket Club.
• March 1933: Wally Hammond scores a double century for the MCC against New Zealand.
• July 1956: Canterbury beat the Springboks 9-6.
• February 1962: Peter Snell breaks the world 800m and 880 yards records.
• July 1971: All Blacks beat the British Lions 22-12.
• March 1974: New Zealand's first ever test win over Australia with Glenn Turner scoring a century in each innings.
• September 1985: Auckland beat Canterbury 28-23 in the Ranfurly Shield 'Game of the Century'.
• February 1990: Sir Richard Hadlee bowls India's Sanjay Manjrekar to become the first bowler in test cricket history to capture 400 wickets.
• March 2002: Nathan Astle's 222 against England is the fastest double-century in test history.
• May 2006: Crusaders beat the Hurricanes 19-12 in Super Rugby's infamous 'fog final'.
• Cricket: Science of playing fast and loose
• Sir Bob Parker's Christchurch city walking tour