Sports correspondent & historian
The Steamers first-up match against Otago at the Tauranga Domain on August 11, will bring back memories for Sideline Sid, of the day that twenty thousand rugby fans packed like sardines into the domain.
48 years ago almost to the day, the 1971 British Lions took on Bay of Plenty in a match where the bay boys almost upset one of the best touring sides to visit our Shaky Isles.
Unlike today, where the task of squeezing a huge crowd into the domain would be handled by whistling up a long line of contractors - the temporary stands that ringed the domain and all the other myriad of tasks before, after, and on game day, were carried out by a large band of local volunteers.
The background to the first big international game in the Western Bay, was that Rugby Park in Rotorua wasn’t up to the required standard to host the match, so the New Zealand Rugby Union took a punt on the Tauranga sub-union offer to host the match.
Sideline Sid sat down with long-time Tauranga rugby identity Brian McCord, who was heavily involved with the volunteer army that put on the show, who reminisced about the herculean feat.
"The organizing committee was the Tauranga Sub-Union, with all the town clubs heavily involved".
The first major task was installing the temporary seating.
"While a contractor encircled three quarters of the ground with scaffolding, the huge task of installing the planks to sit on, was undertaken by the sub-union workers".
John Church from Odlins Timber supplied the timber, with old time rugby identities such as Chum Dennison, Les Sinton, George Muir, Charlie O'Neil and Dan Neilson turning up every day over a couple of weeks, to install and mark out the seating.
"After the Council building inspector condemned many of the planks at his first inspection, more timber which was in short supply, was needed to complete the stands.
“Further timber arrived from Kawerau, which Bay Rugby’s Dick Littlejohn had got for nix, with the seating finished to the building inspector’s satisfaction”.
The entire match-day workforce came from the myriad of local club volunteers, who wanted to be involved in a very special day in the history of Western Bay Rugby. Led by Tauranga Sub-Union chief Ian McCarroll, the volunteers assisted as ushers, gatekeepers, security and at the after-match function.
Brian's chief responsibility on the day, was parking cars on the domain number two field and Wharepai Domain.
"While we packed the cars into the two nearby fields, there was traffic gridlock in central Tauranga after the game with the last cars stuck until around 6pm. In the days before the harbour bridge, the local traffic department stepped in to divert the Waikato bound traffic through Otumoetai and out Cambridge Road to the Kaimai's.
The after match was held at the Tauranga Town Hall, with the arrival of the tourists at the venue creating a minor emergency. In the days before electrolyte replacement drinks, the players headed for the milk crates in the hall and drank all the milk destined for cups of tea.
To add to the hospitality worries, the country was in the middle of a brewery strike.
"Erinlee Lounge owner Tony Fahey, who was the after-match caterer, somehow pulled a 'rabbit out of a hat' and came up with a pallet of beer to which he stated, don't ask where it came from".
Coached by Ron Bryers, the blue and gold brigade almost brought of a real upset. Trailing by just four points at the break, the final score of 20-14 to the visitors indicted the titanic struggle that took place at the Tauranga Domain, that August day.
The Bay of Plenty team won the try-scoring stakes running in three touchdowns to two. Then Rotorua's Marist St Michaels fullback Bruce Trask led the way with a try, conversion and a penalty goal. Katikati flyer Graeme Moore grabbed a three pointer, with New Zealand Maori and Rangataua hooker Ron Walker also dotting the ball down.
The game turned out to generate the best gate receipts of all the mid-week Lions matches and resulted in a Bay of Plenty encounter against the visiting Australians at the Domain the following year.