Over and out from Carisbrook

BY MIKE HOULIHAN
Last updated 05:00 18/06/2010

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It was the 99th rugby game New Zealand had played and just their 12th test match when Billy Stead lead his side out onto Carisbrook on the afternoon of June 6, 1908.

Stead  the star first-five of his day and the vice captain of the 1905 Originals  would have liked what he saw.
A fine, sunny day, a hard ground, and 23,000 Dunedin'ites poised to roar on his boys as the national side took on the British and Irish Lions.

The Lions souvenir programme, on sale for six pence, was issued by the Imperial Advertising Agency of Wellington, and advised that ``The woman who would try other coals has now come back to Waronui Coal''.

Things will be somewhat different when Richie McCaw follows in Stead's footsteps this Saturday.
For a start, it will be 7.30pm at night  Stead and co would have found it hard to conceive of playing rugby so close to bedtime. Some of Stead's players could conceivably been coal miners whereas McCaw's players and their Welsh opponents are all well-paid professionals  something the old-time rugby amateurs would have found difficult to accept.

But when All Blacks game 1183 and test 460 kicks off on Saturday, the essential things will remain the same.
It will be black versus red, and a full-house will be there to see it. Carisbrook has traditionally been a fortress of New Zealand rugby.

Partly that has been because of the fanatical, packed and parochial terraces lent intimidating support to the home team, and partly that has been because Dunedin's winter climate seldom provided visiting teams a warm welcome.

The Rugby Museum's excellent online archive of this country's rugby history notes weather and ground conditions for each match the All Blacks have played, and words like ``dull'', ``cold'', ``rainy'', ``bitterly cold'' and ``saturated'' appear in some of the summaries of Carisbrook match day conditions.

For the 1962 game against Australia the weather was at least fine, but the ground was ``soft with large areas of sawdust''.

``There is no doubt there were times when there would be a southerly coming through and you would get a
small amount of rain,'' former All Black and Otago rep Jeff Wilson said with a smile.

``I played a game there against the Springboks in 1994 and the ground was virtually underwater. It certainly had a temperature you needed to get used to and you needed to prepare for it, but it's like any ground: to keep warm you keep moving.''

Ian Smith  another former Otago back who played three tests in the 1960s on Carisbrook  also has strong memories of the weather.

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``The Springbok game of 65 was an incredibly wet affair,'' is his main recollection of a game on a pitch described as ``heavy.''

The All Blacks have played 40 times previously at Carisbook, losing just six times  one of them an embarrassing 14-10 reverse against the New Zealand Juniors in 1973  and drawing once. That gives an  83 per cent success rate at Carisbrook, making it the All Blacks' most successful ground in New Zealand.

Strangely given that rich history, Saturday will be the first time Wales have played on Carisbrook  although many Welshmen would have turned out for the Lions during their eight tests at the ground.

Smith  nicknamed ``Spooky''  could play either centre or wing, a versatility which helped the former St Clair Golf Club caddy break into a strong All Black team for his debut against Australia, at Carisbook in 1964.

``They're right up with it now but we didn't really ever rate Australia,'' Smith  nowadays resident near Geraldine  said.

``They actually beat us in `64: we won the first two tests but they beat us in the third. That was the day Colin Meads played number 8 ... Rugby was very different in those days. Of course, it was three points for a try, and it wasn't the try-fest rugby is today, it was a lot tighter, not like that game (against Ireland) the other night.

``We (Otago) used to have a home and away game with Southland every year, and you'd have Robin Archer kicking for touch on one side and Earle Kirton kicking for touch on the other side, and we'd be going backwards and forwards between the two 25s.

``You got chastised if you did anything else.

``I remember I ran from underneath my own sticks one day and (coach) Eric Watson took me aside and said `never do that again'.''

Unlike today when the players are rolled out regularly in front of the media and star in advertisements, Smith and his contemporaries seldom spoke to journalists, let alone fronted for deodorant or underwear companies.
They also operated under a stern disciplinary code which would never have tolerated the appearance and antics of some of today's All Blacks.

``I played with guys like John Graham, Colin Meads, Wilson Whineray,'' Smith said.

``Graham would only have to look at you and you would shrink back into your shell. But I loved it.

``It has sure changed a bit though ... There used to be a guy called Doug Hamilton who played for Otago in the shield era of 49  I think he was one of the only forwards who didn't go to South Africa.

``Later in life he became a South Island selector and he was discipline was one of the things he ensured.

``One day we were coming  down the tunnel at Carisbrook after beating someone and he made a reference and I said `It wasn't too bad, was it Doug?

``He called me aside and said `I'm Mr Hamilton to you and I said `OK Mr Hamilton', thinking if you want to be Mr Hamilton you're Mr Hamilton because I was pretty keen to get into the South Island side.

``When I made the ABs in `63 he drew me aside again and said `You can call me Doug now'.''
In Smith's era the Black jersey was just as coveted as it is now, but it was much harder to get hold of.

``Rotation policies'', let alone substitutions, didn't exist, so getting into the All Blacks  and playing nine tests in an era when just one test series a year was the norm  was no mean feat.

``The best side went on the paddock, so if you were trying to get into it someone either had to fall over and break his leg, or you had to play out of your skin,'' Smith said.

While Smith had to strive mightily to make the All Blacks, Jeff Wilson's sporting talents were identified so early that it seemed only a matter of time before he became either an All Black or a Black Cap. Ultimately, he became both.

While he burst on the rugby scene as a young man  most memorably with a brilliant solo try on Carisbrook against Auckland  Wilson said he always had a reverence for the age of the ground.

``There was a lot of history in those changing rooms,'' he said.

``You knew who sat where and heard a lot of old war stories. When you talk about Carisbrook you tend to talk about the atmosphere created by the old terraces, with the stalwarts who came and filled the stands.

``They were behind you and they were raucous and if you are giving them a reason to do so it felt good. It was good to know there were people there appreciating the rugby and having a good time. There is no doubt there was a great atmosphere when the place was full, but sometimes it didn't need a full house, because of the fervour of the people there.''

Wilson played club and provincial rugby at Carisbrook, as well as five tests. He said it rated clearly as his favourite ground, and singled out an immaculate playing surface as one reason why  much time, effort and money had gone into eliminating the need to spread sawdust over the pitch in the years leading up to when Wilson graced Carisbrook.

Home ground advantage is a sporting commonplace, and it will be matter of time before we know whether the Forsyth Barr Stadium at University Plaza inherits Carisbrook's reputation. Make no mistake though, Wilson said: for generations or Otago and the All Blacks, playing at Carisbrook really meant something.

``You get to know a pitch inside and out, every blade of grass.  When you put the ball up in the air you know the wind from behind which stand will blow the ball back infield, you know where to land it so it will kick off the wet grass and go out really well, that it falls away in one corner. It's always good to have the inside knowledge on any field.

``I cherished every opportunity I got to play on the ground.''

All Blacks vs Wales, Carisbrook, Saturday, 7.30pm.

On the web: visit www.rugbymuseum.co.nz for a comprehensive rundown of All Black history. 15-06-10 1620

- D Scene

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