From Baseball to Rugby - Historic Sporting Links Continue

29 June 2010

The visit to Wellington this Wednesday 30 June by USA Eagles rugby team management, to check out facilities and preparation for Rugby World Cup 2011, continues a long and interesting tradition of US sporting links with the Newtown area.

Strong ties between the US and New Zealand were forged during World War II. Thousands of American troops were stationed throughout the Wellington region before and during their bloody campaigns in the Pacific. Camps and facilities were set up around Wellington City - including Newtown.

The US rugby team will train at Newtown Park during RWC 2011, on a ground that has historical links for them, just down the road from other sites with US sporting associations.

Eagles players will train near the site of Newtown Park's former basketball hall. The hall was built by American GIs during WWII with a sprung wooden floor - previously unheard-of in New Zealand at the time - to address a lack of suitable venues for their beloved game. Sadly, the hall was destroyed by fire in 1999.

Just across the road (and down a bit) from Newtown Park is the site of the former Athletic Park, now a retirement village. Athletic Park was the scene of many great sporting moments, among them a thrilling - if slightly baffling for spectators - game of baseball in 1942. Around 25,000 locals watched US Marine Corps troops play baseball. Archives New Zealand has wonderful newsreel footage of the match, which can be viewed online at:

Weekly Review No 77 - Ziln website

Wartime camps were set up locally on Nairn Street Park and at the Winter Show Grounds site (now Te Whaea) - and a local man reports a noteworthy sporting link with the latter. Former Te Whaea facilities manager Jeff Williams tells of a visit by former US Marines about six or seven years ago, who were based at the site.

"They had very fond memories of their time here, but obviously not such good memories of the battles they went on to fight in the Pacific - I think they were involved in Guadalcanal.

"They were based in living quarters in the area that is now a car park for the new artificial turf. They told me they used to play baseball games on the upper field - which is where the new artificial sportsfield is."

The artificial turf, which will be officially opened on Saturday 24 July, has had a varied history - it was originally a rubbish tip (known as 'Jam Tin Gully'), then a recreation ground, then car park and now back to a sportsground.

Sport provided a welcome diversion for the wartime visitors - and, judging by the Athletic Park baseball crowd, for locals too.

Wellington provided a welcoming temporary home as the Marines prepared for war in the Pacific - and convalesced after battles. They came to New Zealand at a time when the country was most vulnerable to invasion by the Japanese, and gave locals a sense of security when so many New Zealand servicemen were fighting on the other side of the world.

A plaque in Frank Kitts Park commemorates the Marines' stay in Wellington and reads: "To the People of New Zealand - If You ever Need a Friend You Have One". That friendship endures through sporting links today.

Acting Wellington Mayor Ian McKinnon said: "The city will be offering the team the chance to find out more about local wartime and sporting history, and looking at ways to involve the community. We want to celebrate this very special relationship during RWC 2011 by providing opportunities to strengthen those ties."

While the US Eagles will be giving it their all and looking to win their RWC 2011 matches against the likes of Australia (at Wellington Regional Stadium on 23 September 2011) they're no doubt hoping to follow in the footsteps of their wartime forbears and enjoy some legendary Kiwi hospitality.