10 Mar 2019

QBE Stadium: in defence of the park that could have been

12:31 pm on 10 March 2019

QBE Stadium is a little-used, fun, weird ground to go to that suffers from a lack of surrounding infrastructure - but, Jamie Wall writes, it could have been so different.

Last night saw the Blues get their season off the mark with a win over the Sunwolves.

Blues Rieko Ioane celebrates after another try during the Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Sunwolves in Auckland.

Blues Rieko Ioane celebrates after another try during the Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Sunwolves in Auckland. Photo: Photosport

The guy on the PA was billing it as a 'hugely important' match - well yes, important in the sense that the Blues' coaching staff won't have to start fielding question about their job security after the 28-20 win, but not so much in that they've got another 12 games to actually see where 2019 will take them on the Super Rugby table.

One thing that anyone outside of Auckland probably wouldn't have thought was important at all was where the game was played. Not the Blues' usual home of Eden Park, but the often forgotten QBE Stadium over the bridge and far away in Albany.

It's a fun, yet weird ground to go to. Weird because when you sit there it's so hard to not get distracted by the fact that despite it being 22 years old it's still only half built. One giant stand looms over the playing field, wondering when, if ever, its symmetrical other half will rise up to block out the setting sun that shone straight across the field as last night's game kicked off.

There's about 60 percent of a good stadium there. It has the one thing that people want in a football ground, which is proximity to the pitch. That's because it was purpose built for football back in 1997.

General view.
Wellington Phoenix v Melbourne City FC, Hyundai A-League, QBE Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand. 14 April 2018. © Copyright Image: Marc Shannon / www.photosport.nz.

QBE Stadium Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2018

The one proximity issue it does have is the distance it lies from Auckland city: it's about 20 minutes drive up the road on a good day, which isn't so bad when you're going there. It's getting out that's a pain - everyone leaving at the same time down one street to head off to the different parts of the city creates a good old fashioned Auckland traffic jam. It's depressingly understandable if you're heading home from work on a weekday afternoon, but enough to make you not want to come back if it's a Saturday night at the footy.

But it all could have been so different.

Eden Park was on its last legs 20 or so years ago. The largest stadium in the country and home to some of the most famous New Zealand sporting moments was, in reality, a motley collection of stands built in different decades. The new North Harbour Stadium (as it was known then) could've supplanted it as the number one venue for All Black tests and the home of the Blues. Modelled on the iconic Hong Kong Stadium, it was set up so that one day, when Eden Park was demolished, paved over and sold as real estate to the gentrifying masses, it could be totally completed. Big banking stands would rise up behind each goal line, the capacity would be somewhere around 50,000-60,000, and most importantly the ways for those people to get to it and back would be constructed.

That's where this hypothesis turns from a simple sports story to one about public transport.

If it had been finished, it's not too much of a stretch to think that a rail line running directly there from Britomart would have been planned and implemented. A bridge or a tunnel to take rugby fans to and from the game, but also to take people to and from work. It would have been the start of something that lobby groups are still pushing for to this day.

It would have been basically a 20-year head start on a solution to what's become a mind-numbingly massive problem of simply getting from A to B in New Zealand's biggest city - especially when it involves going over the existing, car-only harbour bridge.

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Traffic jams on the harbour bridge are all too common. Photo: NZTA

Except it never happened, because Eden Park never died. In fact, it's had two stays of execution due to a new north stand being built in 2000, then a complete revamp of the others leading up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. It's hard to be that critical of it, either, it is still a perfectly good venue for rugby and fine for cricket when it's full of people.

Since then, upgrading QBE has always been the absolute last resort in ongoing and seemingly completely circular discussion about Auckland stadiums. It always seems that the waterfront option is thrown up first, then how Eden Park can't have concerts, then pretty much everything else is an afterthought. The most frustrating thing was that an answer was there all along, sitting up the road - or train line that would have eventually expanded out into the nearby areas.

QBE Stadium now stands as somewhat of a white elephant. It only gets one Blues fixture a year and has been used as an All Black test venue only once in the last 14 years. North Harbour's Mitre 10 Cup crowds are sparse, so most of the time it gets used hardly anyone is in it.

But it is home to some iconic moments of its own: Jeff Wilson's five tries against Fiji in 1997 is an All Black record on home soil, last night's quartet of tries by Rieko Ioane was the second time that's happened there (the other being Asaeli Tikoirotuma for the Chiefs in 2012), the All Blacks scored their biggest ever victory over the Springboks there, and somehow it was home to the Ranfurly Shield for a summer in 2006-2007.

It could add that it may be an answer to Auckland's traffic problems, too. But it looks like we'll never know.