Rugby Weather: Snow and the Lions

The first test between the All Blacks and the Lions in 1930 was played at Dunedin’s Carisbrook Park just after a snowstorm. Rain started in the morning then turned to snow during the curtain raiser. It became almost impossible to make out the players and some of the crowd went home while others sheltered under blankets and umbrellas.

Part of the crowd shelter from one of the snow showers that fell before the match. Photo courtesy of NZ Observer

The snow eased to sleet as the test teams came onto the field then cleared soon after. However, the ground by this time was quite heavy and slippery making expansive back play difficult. The score was 3-3 going into the last minute. The All Blacks were hot on attack, when Great Britain’s Ivor Jones intercepted a pass and took off downfield. As he was tackled by George Nepia he passed to his winger who scored a spectacular try in the corner bringing the crowd to its feet and secured a 6-3 win for Great Britain.

The snow affected eastern areas of the South Island and was regarded as the heaviest in more than a decade. Southland and south Otago were worst hit with many roads closed, delaying spectators trying to return home after the test. Gore had 15 cm while some places as much as 23 cm. When the train carrying the Great Britain rugby team to Invercargill on the Sunday stopped at Gore, the players started a snowball fight amongst themselves before uniting and bombarding the crowd that had turned out to greet them.

The Great Britain team must have become well acclimatised to snow by the time of their game against Ranfurly Shield holders Southland on the Wednesday. There was a bitterly cold wind and further snow fell but Great Britain won 9-3.

The Southland rugby team were no strangers to snow and famously defeated Manawatu in a Shield defence in 1939 when the ground was covered in 10 cm of snow (see my previous blog).

A previous Great Britain team also had a close encounter with snow when it played Canterbury-South Canterbury-West Coast combined at Lancaster Park on 6 August 1904 in the opening game of its tour. Although the weather for the game was fine, snow had fallen earlier in the week and had to be cleared from the playing field.

Fortunately for the home team the snow had not been completely cleared from the in-goal area. Their only try was scored when a defender tried to kick the ball dead only for it to hit the snow and stop. Future All Black Bob Deans dived on it to score. However, the conversion failed and Great Britain won 5-3.

A year later, Deans scored the controversial try that was disallowed when the 1905 All Blacks suffered their only defeat, losing 0-3 to Wales.

While snow occasionally comes to the house of rugby, rugby sometimes goes to the house of snow. In Antarctica there is an annual rugby match between the scientists at Scott Base and those at McMurdo.  Played on a groomed snow surface on top of two metre thick sea ice the Ross Island Cup has been won by New Zealand for 27 years straight. The New Zealand supporters distribute “Rugby 101” leaflets to the US supporters to help them understand the rules.

Closer to home is the Glacier Country Cup disputed annually by seven aside teams the Cunning Foxes and the Franz Josef Eagles on a pitch 2340 metres above sea level. The players, crowd, goalposts, touch-lines and try-lines are all carried up by helicopters.

As winners of the latest match, The Cunning Foxes, hosted a Spanish women’s team, Unio Esportiva Santboiana from near Barcelona. The visitors carried the day with a running game the locals could not match. However, the Spanish women did not arrive in New Zealand entirely ignorant of our style of rugby as the sporting director of Unio Esportiva Santboiana is the former All Black hooker Bruce Hemera.

Rugby Weather: New Zealand v South Africa in the Rain

On Saturday 17 September 1921, the deciding test of the first Springbok Tour was played at Wellington’s Athletic Park. New Zealand had won the first test 13-5 at Carisbrook and South Africa the second test 9-5 at Eden Park.

Unfortunately, after a long dry spell, rain began on the Friday evening and continued throughout the weekend. Of the 131mm that fell in Wellington, 42mm had fallen by the end of the match. Although the rain, which fell over a large part of the North Island, was welcome to farmers, it caused a number of slips and flooded parts of the Miramar Peninsula and the Hutt Valley. The Hutt River stayed within its banks but delivered the carcase of a dead horse to Petone Beach.

The Athletic Park ground had been hard after the dry spell and the rain could not easily drain away, resulting in several respectable sized lakes on the playing field. The curtain raiser was cancelled and the crowd had to entertain themselves.

The slippery clay on the western bank helped, as it became a great spectacle to watch people negotiate their way over its treacherous surface. Particularly those under the influence of liquid refreshments, some of whom came slithering down on their hands and knees. Part of the bank gave way, to the distress of a group of young women who came down with it, but generally the crowd was in good spirits despite being soaked.

Food fights broke out, mostly orange peel and banana skins but one crayfish was seen flying through the air. It landed on an umbrella and was partially impaled on the stick while the remains broke through the umbrella fabric and ended up in the victims lap.

Vendors were selling umbrellas outside the ground for 15 shillings and 6 pence, as against a normal week-day price of 3 shillings and 6 pence. Military surplus oilcloths were also on sale and wooden cases to sit or stand on cost 1s and 6d, rising to 3s and 6d as supplies ran low close to kick-off.

Fortunately, the wind was only a light southerly, but the rain was not conducive to good rugby. The game was described as more like water polo with the ball like grease and the ground turning into a veritable quagmire. It became a mud slog between the forwards. There was a lot of kicking and chasing, with the ball coming to an abrupt halt when it hit the deeper puddles.

One penalty shot for goal barely left the ground. A Springbok forward got over the New Zealand line but was on his back and could not force the ball before it was ripped out of his hands. An All Black back was in the clear with the South African line open but lost his footing in a small lake.

The ball lands in one of the many areas of surface water on the ground as a Springbok approaches. Photo courtesy of NZ Freelance.

A brief interruption occurred in the second half when the referee slipped over and was accidently kicked in the head by a Springbok forward. He was able to continue but collapsed after the end of the game. His absence from the after match function sparked a rumour that he had died when he was actually safe at home in bed.

The Springboks were considered to have had the best of the first half and the All Blacks the best of the second half, but the game ended in a scoreless draw.

In a speech after the match the South African Manager said that he could not think of a happier ending to the tour –

“As our hosts, I am sure you would have been very unhappy if you had beaten us; as your guests we would have been very unhappy if we had beaten you. I can reflect the opinion of every one of you when I say that the best team drew.”

Rugby Weather: French Storm 1961

In August 1961 my Dad took me to see my first test match. All Blacks versus France at Wellington’s Athletic Park, although with hindsight it was more like New Zealand and France combined versus the weather.

Not that wind and rain were a negative for my ten-year-old self. That seemed to be one of the great things about rugby: it was so important that you were allowed to play in the rain. There was even some thought that the muddier you got the better you had played, the more heroic your effort.

With high hopes we settled into our benched seats, four rows back but not much elevation so I missed some of the good bits when everyone stood up. Dad let me know what had happened. Fortunately, we were at the northern half of the ground, almost lined up with the 25 yard line, since the wind confined 95% of the play to that end.

The French had the southerly storm behind them in the first half but after a solid All Black defensive effort it was nil all at half-time. “A twenty point wind” my father told me. In those days rugby’s way of measuring wind strength was how many points it was worth when it was blowing in the direction you were going. If it was blowing side-on it was just irritating.

I felt a bit sorry for the French. Their first trip to New Zealand. It seemed a long way to come to get thrashed. Then the second half started and the French defence proved resolute. Time passed and the All Blacks weren’t scoring. “The wind’s so strong it’s hard to pass”, my father explained. “Blowing the slippery ball away from their hands”, he added. Then the French scored. Length of the field try, against the run of play, not meant to happen, where was the cover defence?

Time running out, France 3 All Blacks 0, the abyss gaped before me. Then Tremain scored in the far corner. That’s what Dad said, I could only see the back of the man in front, though I could feel the hysterical relief in the cheering. Tied up 3 -3, conversion attempt from the sideline regarded as impossible in such a wind. Draw better than a loss, but not much. Then the kick went over, delirium. Don Clark later claimed to have aimed the kick along the 25 yard line and let the wind take it through the posts.

Ten minutes left, time to score again and stamp our authority on proceedings. But the French held on and 5-3 to the All Blacks it finished. The guilty pleasure of a narrow victory as the crowd slowly poured away. My first taste of a moral victory and it wasn’t ours. When we were meant to be piling on the points, the French had scored into the wind through their fabulous running and passing. Something we hadn’t done.

And what a wind it was, 137km/h gust at the airport, trees down, roofs off houses, ships unable to enter the harbour, airport closed, waves breaking over roads and railway lines. One man’s hat blew from Athletic Park to Karori. And the realisation that rugby’s wind scale was circular. As the wind strength picked up a ten point wind might turn into a fifteen point wind, but if the strength kept climbing the needle went right round the dial. A hurricane strength wind favoured no-one and was worth zero points.

Situation map as at 6pm Friday 4 August 1961
Situation map as at 6pm Friday 4 August 1961