Originally a swamp, Auckland's Eden Park has been a sports ground since the late 19th century. Today New Zealand's largest sports stadium, it has been the site of some memorable sporting victories - and losses. The chaotic third test of the protest-ridden 1981 Springbok rugby tour was played there, as were New Zealand's victorious finals in the 1987 and 2011 Rugby World Cups.
Eden Park, site of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, is New Zealand’s largest stadium. It has a capacity of 50,000, which will be temporarily increased to 60,000 for the World Cup. It was originally a swamp, surrounded by luxuriant kouka, or cabbage trees. Known as Cabbage Tree Swamp, it dried out in summer but in winter became a lake.
In the late nineteenth century, the land was leased out by the Kingsland Cricket Club. In 1911 the Auckland Cricket Association purchased the ground, now known as Eden Park, and the following year the Auckland Rugby Union leased it in order to use it in the winter. The ground was drained, a grandstand erected, and in 1914 the first rugby game was played there.
The first-ever rugby test match at Eden Park was held in 1921, when the All Blacks played the Springboks. The excitement surrounding this event was enormous and it attracted a crowd of over 30,000 people. Yet despite the huge home crowd the All Blacks lost to the Springboks for the first time ever – nine points to five.
Eden Park was also the venue for the 1950 Empire Games, now called the Commonwealth Games. Yvette Williams, later to become an Olympic gold medallist, won gold in the long jump and silver in the javelin in a games where New Zealand finished third on the medals table.
In 1955, Eden Park was the site of one of New Zealand cricket’s darkest days. In the second innings of a test match against England, New Zealand scored a humiliating total of only 26 runs. Four players were out for a duck, and the top scorer, opener Bert Sutcliffe, was the only player to reach double figures with 11 runs. This total remains the lowest-ever test innings total in the world.
However, a year later, New Zealand had its first-ever test cricket victory at Eden Park, beating the West Indies by 190 runs in the final test of the series.
In 1981, Eden Park was the site of a bloody political conflict. During the final game of the controversial Springbok Rugby Tour, the third and deciding test, thousand of protestors and police clashed in running battles outside the ground. Police cars were overturned and set on fire, and a number of police and protestors were hospitalised in the most violent clashes of the tour.
Meanwhile a small plane, piloted by protestor Marx Jones, buzzed the park, while his fellow passenger dropped flour bombs on the ground, one of which hit All Black Gary Knight. Despite the protests outside and the flour bombs dropping amongst them, the players continued until the final whistle, with an injury-time penalty kick from Alan Hewson giving the All Blacks a series-winning 25-22 victory.
Though the 1981 test was one of the country’s darkest moments, six years later, Eden Park was the site of its proudest when New Zealand won the final of the inaugural Rugby World Cup final – its only World Cup win*.
The 1987 competition saw All Black stars such as Michael Jones and John Kirwan in stunning form, and Grant Fox score 126 points – a tournament record which still stands today. New Zealand won the final against France 29-9, and when All Black captain David Kirk kissed the Webb Ellis Trophy after the game, he channelled the joy of the nation.
*Note that this recording was made before the 2011 Rugby World Cup which was also won by the All Blacks at Eden Park when they beat France 8-7 in the final.