Rising from cities, small towns and country paddocks filled with farmers’ stock, no part of New Zealand’s landscape is quite complete without a set of rugby goal posts.
Rugby is New Zealand’s most-played sport, and every Saturday more than 145,000 players lace up their boots and run onto rugby fields to chase the oval ball. Some fields are no more than farmland while others are hallowed turf identified by instantly recognisable names and often-told stories of rugby’s great moments. A rugby-lovers tour of New Zealand would not be complete without walking the turf on some of New Zealand’s iconic rugby pitches.
1. Eden Park, Auckland
Eden Park is New Zealand’s largest stadium and has been a sports ground since 1900. In the heart of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, Eden Park underwent major redevelopment to increase capacity from 48,000 to 60,000 for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Eden Park features a Hall of Legends that opened in 2002 and contains 2000 items of significant New Zealand sporting memorabilia.
Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
With more than 10,500 registered rugby players in the Waikato - a dairy farming region - it’s hardly surprising that cows and rugby have become inseparable. Mooloo has become a common nickname for everything pertaining to the Waikato Rugby team and its supporters and passionate supporters swing cowbells in the crowd. In 1956 Waikato beat the South African team - the first time a provincial team had beaten a touring Springbok side.
Rotorua International Stadium
Founded in 1911, the Rotorua International Stadium must be the only rugby stadium in the world set in a thermal wonderland amongst bubbling mud, hot pools and rumbling geysers. One of New Zealand's largest capacity sports venues, the stadium is the home of Bay of Plenty rugby. Despite an official capacity of 37,000, the largest crowd ever recorded at the stadium was in 1977 when the British Lions played Bay of Plenty in front of 39,000 fans.
Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Yarrow Stadium was named the third best rugby ground in the world and scored points for its distinctly Kiwi atmosphere and the fact that it is a regional stadium in the spiritual home of rugby with picturesque Mt Taranaki visible in the background. The rugby ground was also described as "tight," because the two stands are close to the pitch and spectators feel they are almost on top of the action. The players also feel the proximity of the spectators so it is a "shared, intense experience".
Mangatainoka’s rugby ground is no more than a farmer’s paddock but typifies the home of grassroots rugby in New Zealand. As an added bonus, this pitch is next door to one of the country’s best-known breweries - Tui beer has been "distracting the boys from the task at hand since 1889". Each January, local farmers, contractors and earth movers get together to level the field, remove sheep ruts and throw up the temporary 122-seat grandstand. The grounds have a capacity of 8,500 and the annual Hurricanes pre-season game is always a sell-out bringing in the crowds from the surrounding Wairarapa and Manawatu regions.
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Fondly nicknamed "the cake tin", the Wellington Stadium opened on New Year’s Eve in 1999, the stadium has become a successful large capacity venue that hosted the 2000 Edinburgh Military Tattoo - the first time the event was held outside Edinburgh, Scotland. Another claim to fame was when, during a cricket match, film director Peter Jackson recorded 30,000 fans chanting a battle scene cry for his filmThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Trafalgar Park, Nelson
Trafalgar Park, named after the battle of Trafalgar, is not only one of New Zealand’s oldest sports grounds but also boasts the most unusual pitch - eco-friendly recycled glass that resembles sand. Just a five-minute walk from Nelson’s city centre, with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, Trafalgar Park is considered one of New Zealand’s most attractive rugby grounds. New Zealand's first rugby game - under official rugby rules - was played in Nelson on 14 May 1870 between Nelson College and the Nelson Football Club. A sign shaped like a rugby ball and goal posts marks the site of the original game which featured 18-player sides and attracted about 200 spectators.
Victoria Square, Westport
The West Coast pitch seats just 5,000 - not the biggest stadium by any means, but enough to seat the entire population of Westport and, according to locals, every spot is usually taken for the big games. Hardy Westport natives say the best time to attend a game is in a good old-fashioned West Coast downpour, ideally when their team Buller is playing neighbours and staunch rivals West Coast.
Upper Clutha Rugby Club, Wanaka
Lake Wanaka’s Upper Clutha Rugby Club was named as New Zealand’s most scenic rugby field in a 2010 photography contest. On any Saturday afternoon during winter, visitors looking for a rural rugby experience will find locals standing on the sideline - or on the back of their ‘utes’ parked beside the field - cheering their teams on in a magnificent alpine backdrop.
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Visitors to Rugby World Cup 2011 were the first to experience the comfort of the 30,000-place covered Forsyth Barr Stadium - completed just in time for the tournament. This is one of New Zealand's newest stadiums and is the world's first stadium consisting of real grass under a transparent roof.