Every country has its sporting coliseum. Australia boasts the Melbourne Cricket Ground, England treasures Lord’s and North America showcases Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium. For New Zealanders, whose love affair for rugby grows deep, Eden Park is where they make their weekend pilgrimage.
John McCrystal and Lindsay Knight’s Eden Park: A History is an account of Eden Park’s journey from swamplands to proud hosts of the world’s third biggest sporting event- the Rugby World Cup. In 1900, New Zealand’s largest stadium was a sports ground and by 1914, Eden Park became two drained ovals.
The book is filled with delightful anecdotal stories that provide both a social commentary and an amusing read. Reminiscing about the year 1902 when Eden Park was still covered in rocks, blacksmith and Eden Park visionary Harry Ryan recalled, “it was one of the unwritten laws of the club that every member who came to practice should take at least one stone off the ground with him when he went home, and in this way the ground was gradually cleared”. These anecdotal gems and the authors’ understanding of social history ensure the book is more than just a neat coffee table book.
Eden Park: A History is also every avid sporting trivia fan’s encyclopedia, or, at the very least, for Kiwi sport. The ground may be New Zealand rugby’s spiritual home and has certainly born witness to more than one Wallaby thrashing, but rugby was not the first football code to be played on the once swampy lands. Amazingly, an Australian Rules exhibition match was first football code to grace the fields.
As a MCG loyalist, trolling through the history of Eden Park triggered my own fond memories of spending a Friday night or a Boxing Day at the mighty G’. The MCG and Eden Park encapsulate Australia and New Zealand’s fierce competiveness and religious-like commitment to sport. More importantly, the two grounds have the ability, like few other sporting cathedrals, to create an affectionate cult following for the nation’s sporting heroes. If it’s the crowd at Eden Park chanting “Had-Lee, Had-Lee, Had-Lee”, or MCG’s Bay 13 imitating Merv Hughes’ stretching and 90,000 Melbournians chanting “Warney”- the two stadiums truly share a unique ambience.
While the book captures the fans’ loving perspective and celebrates New Zealand triumphs at Eden Park, McCrystal and Knight dare to illustrate the ground’s ugly moments as well. Sport can often be the most reliable means to unify people- but this wasn’t the case in 1981 when a Springbok’s tour of New Zealand was allowed despite the apartheid regime strangling South Africa. McCrystal and Knight are particularly critical of former New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon who naively “believed sport could and should rise above politics”. Severe hostility and “battle lines” were drawn from outraged protestors once the New Zealand Rugby Union invited the Springboks. Sadly, the tension and rage reached its climax at Eden Park, where the ground resembled a fortified army base instead of a sporting stadium. The book’s description of the violent events that took place during the Eden Park Test is tightly done with anecdotes from protestors and telling photographs that shock.
Ultimately, Eden Park: A History avoids the typically dull “timeline” account of a stadium’s history. Instead, the book is an enjoyable 231-page presentation of New Zealand’s sporting heartbeat.