Thirty thousand patrons entered Athletic Park for the final time 20 years ago today, 10 October 1999, to watch the Wellington Lions play Otago in round nine of the National Provincial Championship.
Athletic Park had been the home of all rugby in Wellington for 97 years.
The Lions were also having their best season for several years. They were unbeaten in their three matches at home thus far and on track to make the semi-finals for the first time since the National Provincial Championship introduced playoffs in 1992.
Following a 6-45 loss away to Auckland in early August, the Lions would return to Eden Park towards the end of October to play Auckland in the final. It was lost 18-24, but it was a final they could have won, and they would win the following year playing out of Westpac Stadium for the first time.
The three wins at Athletic Park throughout August and September 1999 were against North Harbour (21-20), Counties-Manukau (46-28) and Southland (61-3).
The Winds of Change, Wellington’s Rugby History 1979-2004 summed up the season: “The demise of Athletic Park was celebrated in style. With the All Blacks away at the World Cup, youngsters like Jerry Collins and Riki Flutey were given their chance and purchases Dion Waller, Kevin Yates, Jason Spice, Kupu Vanisi, Brad Fleming and David Holwell did their bit under the captaincy of Norm Hewitt.”
Special guests on the last afternoon of rugby were the survivors of the following chosen ‘Legends of the Park XV’: Billy Wallace, Stu Wilson, Frank Mitchinson, Ron Jarden, Mark Nicholls, John Dougan, Frank Roberts, Murray Mexted, Graham Williams, Murray Pierce, Nev McEwan, Ranji Wilson, Artie Lambourn, Terry McCashin and Ken Gray.
The Lions won the final match over Otago 36-16, to book an away semi-final against Waikato, scoring tries to Brad Fleming (2), Jason O’Halloran, Inoke Afeaki, Filo Tiatia and David Holwell. Holwell kicked five conversions and a penalty.
There was actually one more (non-competition) match that took place there. On 13 November, a Centurions XV played a President’s XV. The next day a relay passed a ball from Athletic Park to the new railyards stadium. The final try was scored by Wellington’s most capped player Graham Williams (174 games) and the conversion kicked by then vice-captain Jason O’Halloran.
Athletic Park’s opening day had been 6 April, 1896, with club rugby matches between Sydenham and Melrose, and Christchurch and Wellington. Melrose won 7-3 and Christchurch won 12-0.
Apart from a brief foray to Miramar, Athletic Park was the home of rugby in Wellington. It generally hosted two Senior 1 [Premier] club matches on Saturdays for several decades. These would regularly draw big crowds of sometimes 10,000 or more, with the 1920s and 1950s particularly popular decades.
Marist St Pat’s won the last Premier club rugby match to be played on Athletic Park, beating Poneke 22-16 in the 1999 Jubilee Cup decider. MSP crossed for three tries in the opening 40 minutes and took a match winning 22-3 lead into halftime.
Athletic Park hosted 42 Test matches involving the All Blacks from 1904 to 1999, Tana Umaga scoring a hat-trick in their last Test on 26 June 1999, a 54-7 win over France.
There were several famous Tests there throughout the years. Poor weather was usually a theme. In 1921, the All Blacks drew 0-0 with South Africa in torrential rain. In 1961, Waikato fullback Don Clarke kicked a freakish winning conversion in a howling wind to beat France 5-3 and the Test was dubbed the ‘Hurricane’ Test that was a contributing factor in naming the lower North Island Super Rugby team’s name. In 1996, the All Blacks beat Australia 43-6 on a wet and wild day in one of the last memorable internationals there.
The ground’s largest ever crowd was for the All Blacks against the British and Irish Lions on 15 August 1959 in which 59,000 people ‘packed the park.’
One of the biggest crowds for a club match was the club championship decider in 1922 between Petone and Poneke, when more than 16,000 watched Petone beat Poneke 10-5 and win the title. This match wasn’t without incident, Poneke captain Beet Algar being sent off for foul play on his opposite centre Matt Corner and Petone’s Mark Nicholls kicking the winning the penalty in the dying minutes. Over 20,000 packed the park for a Petone – University match in the 1950s.
Wellington had several famous wins over international touring teams there, such as their 12-8 win over Great Britain in 1930, their 23-6 win over South Africa in 1965, their 20-6 win over the British Isles in 1966 and their 24-23 win over France in 1989.
Westpac Stadium opened for business in February 2000 with the first International Sevens tournament. Jonah Lomu scored two matches for the Hurricanes against the Sharks in the first Super Rugby match there several weeks later.
Image credits in this article:
All Blacks running on to Athletic Park for the last time on 26 June 1999:
National Library. Reference: EP/1999/1843/23A
Photograph by Phil Reid.
Wellington Supporters at Athletic Park on 1 August 1959:
National Library. Reference: EP/1959/2662-F
Photograph by Evening Post staff photographer