The world-famous Eden Park celebrates 100 years of test rugby later this year, a milestone that will quickly be followed by another as the ground prepares to host Rugby World Cup matches for the first time in the women’s competition, including the 2021 final.
Now synonymous with rugby’s biggest occasions – two Rugby World Cup finals with a third to come, plus numerous British and Irish Lions tests – Eden Park was once nothing but a swamp, surrounded by cabbage trees, and unusable in the winter months.
Eden Park’s journey as a sporting ground began in 1911 when the land was purchased by the Auckland Cricket Association. Then, a year after the first ball had been bowled, the Auckland Rugby Union leased the ground and drained it. In 1914, the first rugby match was played there.
On 27 August, 1921, test rugby came to Eden Park with a crowd of 30,000 – 14,000 below its current capacity – witnessing the All Blacks’ 9-5 defeat to South Africa. That result was something of an anomaly though as, over time, Eden Park has become a stronghold of New Zealand rugby. In 88 matches at the ground since then, the All Blacks have only lost 10 times.
Since their 23-20 defeat to France in 1994, the All Blacks have come out on top 43 times, with only two draws, against South Africa (18-18) in 1994 to start the record 43-match unbeaten run, and the British and Irish Lions (15-15) in 2017. No other team in the test arena comes close to having such an impenetrable fortress.
The Black Ferns enjoy playing there, too. They have a played five, won five record at Eden Park, amassing 268 points for with only 50 against, in their three wins against Australia and single victories against Samoa and England, from 2013 onwards. The 90-3 win against Samoa in 2014 was the fifth-biggest in the side’s history.
In total, 10 different countries other than New Zealand have played test rugby there, including Zimbabwe and Romania at Rugby World Cup 1987. The inaugural tournament began at Eden Park, with a 70-6 win for New Zealand against Italy, and ended there, too, as David Kirk held the Webb Ellis Cup aloft following a 29-9 victory against France.
That final was replayed at Eden Park 24 years later as the All Blacks celebrated another Rugby World Cup win on home turf, this time after the tensest of 8-7 wins against Les Bleus in 2011. And, given their current form and standing in the women’s game, there is no reason to rule out a hat-trick of Eden Park finals between those two teams when the showpiece occasion of Rugby World Cup 2021 is held there in under eight months’ time.
Six of the Best: Eden Park’s most memorable matches
New Zealand 15-15 British and Irish Lions, 8 August, 2017
Four penalties from the boot of Owen Farrell, the last with barely a couple of minutes left on the clock, and a long-range effort from Elliot Daly, saved the series for the Lions, after first-half tries from Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett had put the hosts in a commanding position. Neither side could land the knock-out blow in a frantic finale, although New Zealand thought they might have a chance to snatch victory, only for referee Romain Poite to overturn his original decision to award them a penalty.
Rugby World Cup 2011: New Zealand 8-7 France, 23 October, 2011
Having gone 24 years without lifting the trophy, New Zealand were desperate to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup again, especially on home soil. France’s form leading into the final had been unremarkable at best but Les Bleus dug deep to push them all the way in a nerve-shredding match decided by a single point.
Tri-Nations 1997: New Zealand 55-35 South Africa, 9 August, 1997
With Carlos Spencer running the show, the All Blacks were an irrepressible attacking outfit in 1997. The 55-35 win against the Springboks in Auckland came in an unbeaten campaign and was an early example of how they embraced professionalism with their outstanding skills and ability to play at pace on show in a 12-try thriller.
World Rugby U20 Championship 2014 final: England 21-20 South Africa, 20 June, 2014
England made it back-to-back victories in the World Rugby U20 Championship after surviving a thrilling fightback from the Junior Springboks. South Africa led 10-3 early on but after Joel Conlon added to Nathan Earle’s try and Billy Burns kicked his points, England had an eight-point cushion with half an hour left to play. Jesse Kriel’s second try of the match, and Handre Pollard’s conversion, set up a grandstand finish but Maro Itoje’s England held on.
New Zealand 10-16 England, 15 September, 1973
England became the first country from the British Isles to beat New Zealand in New Zealand. John Pullin’s side had only travelled there after the original tour to Argentina was called off on safety grounds. And having been beaten in all the provincial games, the omens did not look good for the one-off test. But a man-of-the-match performance from scrum-half Jan Webster and tries from Peter Squires, Tony Neary and Stack Stevens saw them to a historic victory.
Rugby World Cup 1987: New Zealand 70-6 Italy, 22 May, 1987
Such one-sided games are not normally standout occasions but, some 34 years on, John Kirwan’s lung-bursting 70-metre try is still one of the best tries scored in the tournament’s history. It helped give the fledgeling tournament the spark it needed and set New Zealand on the road to Rugby World Cup glory.