It's no secret that New Zealand has a close affinity with the game of rugby. Obsession might be closer to the mark, and it has to be said that when the national team takes to the field most of the country stops and takes notice.
Since the first game was played in New Zealand in 1870, the sport has gone from strength to strength and today this country is steeped in rugby history, memorabilia and legends. For the rugby diehard on a visit to New Zealand, there's a veritable pilgrimage to be made paying respects to the greats and visiting the grounds that have become rugby folklore.
Canterbury – Grassroots footy
The Canterbury region of New Zealand is renowned for producing rugby greats and the provincial side is one of the most feared in domestic rugby. If you want a true grassroots experience then get out to one of the club rugby grounds on a Saturday. Founded in 1876, more recently the Southbridge Rugby Club bred arguably one of New Zealand’s greatest players - a young Daniel Carter played junior rugby here. Daniel’s father Neville is still heavily involved in the club and continues to pull the pints for the friendly supporters every Saturday as the bar manager. He has curated his personal Daniel Carter Museum which takes pride of place in the clubhouse. Be sure to pay tribute to a legend and see some of Daniel Carter’s jerseys, test caps and even his man of the match award from the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final.
Auckland - Heavenly ground
Eden Park, New Zealand’s biggest stadium stands tall in its biggest city, Auckland. Seating 50,000 people, Eden Park is the unofficial home of the All Blacks who haven’t been beaten there since 1992. It hosted the first ever Rugby World Cup Final in 1987, then again in 2011, and the All Blacks won both times. Giant statues of the great Dave Gallaher and Michael ‘Iceman’ Jones welcome visitors to the ground. The hall of champions celebrates the big moments in the ground’s history, including the first two Super Rugby finals and countless legendary Ranfurly Shield matches during Auckland’s most dominant period throughout the 90s. After jumping off the short train ride from downtown Auckland into the rising fringe suburb of Kingsland, Eden Park is impossible to miss. Surrounded by 1920s villas, the majestic ground stands proud and lives up to its holy nickname ‘The Garden of Eden'.
Meadsville – Hometown legend
During the DHL New Zealand Lions Series 2017, the small country town of Te Kuiti (in the Waikato region, three hours south of Auckland) will transform into 'Meadsville' as the locals pay tribute to Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads, surely one of the game's greatest players. There’s a larger-than-life life bronze statue to be unveiled, an interactive rugby museum/gallery featuring items from the Meads family collection, and a dedicated sheep shearing event for locals and visitors. It would be remiss of a true rugby fan to not stop and pay their respects to the legend that is ‘Pinetree’.
Palmerston North – Place of history
True pilgrims on the rugby trail won’t want to miss out on a visit to Palmerston North and The New Zealand Rugby Museum. Just north of Wellington (two hours by road), Palmerston North is a university city, the main centre of the Manawatu region and the final resting place of some of the world’s rarest rugby artefacts. The museum’s collection includes everything from New Zealand’s earliest rugby ball to the original All Black jersey. Get active in the ‘Have A Go’ area and tackle, scrum, jump, sprint and kick like the rugby legends.
Wellington - Creative homage
In Wellington’s Civic Square on the Jack Ilott Green sits a tribute to New Zealand’s national game designed and created by Sir Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop. The scene portrayed by the sculpture symbolises Wellington’s geographical position where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet in Cook Strait, as well as a highly pivotal moment of any rugby game with players shown contesting a line-out. Victor Vito, one of Wellington’s favourite sons, modelled for the sculpture and is depicted as the main player claiming the lineout ball.
Nelson – Where it all began
The Botanics Reserve, a popular cricket ground in central Nelson's Botanical Gardens, played a key role in New Zealand's rugby history. In May 1870, this was the site of the country's first recognised game of rugby when a small crowd gathered to watch a Nelson College side take on the Nelson Football Club. According to reports each team played with 18 players, including 10 forwards, three half-backs, three three-quarters and two fullbacks. Curiously, the hill above the Botanical Gardens also claims to be the geographic centre of New Zealand.
Kurow – McCaw Country
Richie McCaw is a name that's consistently mentioned anywhere when discussing the greatest rugby player to have ever played the game. Depending on what hemisphere you come from, McCaw is a topic of much debate; words like legend, freak, magnificent and some less admiring have been thrown around. No matter what you think of McCaw, this man had a significant impact on the way rugby is played globally today. McCaw’s hometown Kurow (population 312) is found in the southern Waitaki region of New Zealand. Set beside the Waitaki River and overlooked by the Southern Alps, the town is unashamedly McCaw Country. The Kurow Hotel is a great spot for a beer (better make it a Speights) with the locals and a colourful discussion about Richie, one of New Zealand’s favourite sons, is sure to spark.
Dunedin – Honouring New Zealand’s greats
Of course New Zealand isn’t only about rugby and over the years we have punched well above our weight in the sporting area. Dunedin is home to New Zealand’s Sports Hall of Fame which honours the nation’s greatest athletes from all sporting disciplines. Incredible achievements are celebrated such as John Walker running the world’s first sub 3min 50sec mile, Bob Charles’ amazing British Open win and, of course, a healthy dose of rugby brilliance.