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 favourite sport, and every Saturday scores of players lace up their boots and run onto rugby fields to chase the oval ball.
Some fields are no more than farm land 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.
Eden Park – home of legends
Eden Park is New Zealand’s largest stadium and has been a sports ground since 1900. Eden Park hosted the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup (RWC), and the 2011 RWC final, and at both games New Zealand was crowned world champion.
Some of New Zealand's proudest sporting moments have taken place on Eden Park, including the 1950 Empire Games, 1992 and 2015 Cricket World Cups. In 1981 during the now infamous Springbok Tour, a match was interrupted by a low flying Cessna aircraft that flour-bombed the Park.
Located in Kingsland one of Auckland's colourful city fring suburbs, Eden Park seats 50,000 people. Eden Park features a Hall of Legends which opened in 2002 with 2000 items of significant New Zealand sporting memorabilia.
There doesn't need to be a game on at Eden Park to enjoy the ground. Visitors can take part in a stadium tour, learn the haka with a traditional kapa haka group and coming soon a zipline and glamping experience.
FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton – home of the Mooloos
With more than 10,000 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 relating to the Waikato Rugby team and its supporters. A pantomime cow regularly grazes on FMG Stadium Waikato (formerly known as Rugby Park) during rugby matches while passionate supporters swing cow bells. To visiting teams the noise is deafening, to locals it’s music to their ears.
Mooloo history is littered with scalps of international teams who have ventured to Rugby Park and experienced the ferocity of the mighty Waikato team. In 1956 Waikato beat the touring South African team – the first time a provincial team had beaten a touring Springbok side.
Rotorua International Stadium – a hot rugby location
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.
Rugby-weary bodies can soak in the healing waters of the natural hot springs and spas – famed for their therapeutic qualities, and a major New Zealand tourist attraction since the late 1800s.
One of New Zealand’s largest capacity sports venues, the stadium is the home of Bay of Plenty rugby. Locals have dubbed the stadium the ‘Hangi Pit’ as a reference to a traditional Māori cooking technique which uses fire heated stones in an underground earth oven.
Stadium Taranaki (Yarrow Stadium), New Plymouth – world class
Yarrow Stadium was named third best rugby ground in the world, the only ground in New Zealand to make the 2009 Rugby World Magazine list. It 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, Wairarapa – grassroots at its best
On the main road between Hawke’s Bay and Wellington, Mangatainoka’s rugby ground is no more than a paddock but typifies the home of grassroots rugby in New Zealand - with the added bonus that this pitch is situated right next door to one of the country’s best known breweries, Tui – which produces a beer that claims to have been “distracting the boys from the task at hand since 1889”. Tui HQ is open daily with a full café service and brewery tours and tastings.
Each summer, 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.
Wellington Regional Stadium – ‘Rings’ battle cry
Fondly nicknamed “The Cake Tin”, the Wellington Stadium opened in 1999 to replace the aging Athletic Park. It sits right on the waterfront and frequently hosts everything from major sports to cultural events such as big-name concerts and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The stadium is also home to New Zealand’s only professional football team the Wellington Pheonix.
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 film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Botanical Gardens, Nelson – where it all began
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. The game at Botanical Gardens was organised by Charles Monro, a Kiwi who had spent time studying (and playing rugby) in Britain. A sign shaped like a rugby ball and goal posts marks the site of the original game which featured 18-player sides and about 200 spectators.
Trafalgar Park, Nelson – this grass has glass
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.
Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch – Crusader fortress
Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch, the home of the Crusaders Super Rugby Team, was previously known as Rugby League Park. Canterbury Rugby’s original home of Lancaster Park or Jade Stadium was permanently closed following the 2011 earthquake. The new home base for Super Rugby’s most successful franchise may be smaller but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for with atmosphere. Any team that enters the Crusaders’ fortress is in for a monstrous time.
With a capacity of 18,000, the ground is situated near beautiful Hagley Park and a stroll from the city through the Christchurch Botanic Garden is the perfect way to head to the game.
Victoria Square, Westport – fits the whole town
Buller’s home ground seats just 5000 – not the biggest stadium by any means, but enough to sea 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 - NZ's most scenic
Lake Wanaka’s Upper Clutha Rugby Club was named as New Zealand’s most scenic rugby field in a 2010 photography contest.
Photographer Kate Dowling climbed up on the roof of the club rooms to snap the winning photo of a local rugby game in a spectacular alpine setting - with Lake Wanaka in the immediate background and the snow-capped mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park beyond.
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 – indoor comforts
Forsyth Barr Stadium had some big boots to fill when it became the home of Otago Rugby in 2011. Carisbrook, or the ‘House of Pain’ was steeped in history, but the opening of New Zealand’s only covered international rugby ground was warmly welcomed by locals.
A regular host to the All Blacks and home of the Highlanders Super Rugby Team, Forsyth Barr holds 30,000 people. Watching a game of rugby in Dunedin is always a colourful and atmospheric affair with crowds of Otago University students creating a party-like atmosphere.