Yarrow Stadium. Photo: Pakaraki

Yarrow escape: a reprieve for Taranaki’s beloved stadium

Good news for the rugby lovers of Taranaki: despite some stands being closed owing to earthquake risk, their temple will remain open after all, reports Lydia Burgham.

In Taranaki, a disaster has been looming, shrouding the community in a dark, foreboding cloud. I’m not referring to the impending, overdue volcanic eruption, however. There has been a more immediate crisis at hand: the abandonment of the New Plymouth’s Yarrow Stadium for the 2018 rugby season.

Earthquake risk means both of the stadium grandstands are unable to be used for the 2018 season. About $4.5 million has been spent on the stadium over the last decade, including a $1.7 million upgrade of the stadium’s hospitality centre. The upgrades were no match for mother nature though. Both the east and west stands were identified as being a safety risk in the event of an earthquake – with the latter stand’s shake fate confirmed earlier this month.

The stadium, owned by the Taranaki Stadium Trust and operated by the New Plymouth District Council, is the temple of the region’s rugby fanatics. Many a match has graced the lush grass field, battles have been hard fought, wars won and lost. Rugby is embedded in the identity of just about every ’Naki child from birth, with All Black beanies bestowed on infants’ head from the first available moment.

I was brought up on rugby mania, and despite my best efforts to escape its grasp, living in Taranaki for most of my life meant experiencing the odd rugby match at Yarrow Stadium. It’s a great facility, and one that was well and truly brought up to scratch for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. To Taranaki folk, live rugby matches are an integral part of the lifestyle, as iconic as taking a stroll down the coastal walkway and attending the annual Festival of Lights in summer.

When the news of the stadium’s probable inaction broke, I assumed the worst – expecting to return to the energy province in the university break to see it in a deep state of despair.

Judging from my only emotional gauge of the rugby world – my family –  they seem to be taking it better than I expected. Embracing the relaxed Kiwi farmer archetype, my dad brushed off the news in a nonchalant way, but I could sense the pain behind his eyes. From what I understand through my anecdotal research, nothing beats the live rugby atmosphere.

In recent days, however, Yarrow was delivered an unexpected reprieve: the “condemned and vacated” headlines had been premature. The stadium wouldn’t be entirely closing, but operating at a reduced capacity of 14,000 seats, using the southern and northern terraces either end of the stadium.

Taranaki Rugby Union chief executive Jeremy Parkinson told the Spinoff he was delighted that “the strings in the bow” of the region’s violin would remain in operation. Despite the loss of most of the stadium’s capacity from the usual 25,000 and the makeshift arrangements, “morale is strong, there has been no impact on players at all.”

Those that do head out to the reduced-capacity stadium face another challenge: the weather. Taranaki’s sunshine hours aren’t quite as plentiful as its rugby enthusiasm.  It’s already a damp winter, with 17 straight days of rainfall in May alone.

In response to the possibility of wild weather, the Taranaki Rugby Union are exploring the possibility of covering the southern terraced end of the stadium, which may add up to 3200 covered seats.

“It’s in everyone’s best interests to get the facility back in action as soon as possible,” he said.

Parkinson said from the conversations he has had with fans, some devoted season ticket holders were willing to risk their personal safety in order to support their team. They were willing to sign a waiver instead of give up their season seats. Despite the fans’ enthusiasm though, the stands will remain closed to the public.

The Taranaki Bulls season gets underway on August 18, with the first home game to be played against Manawatu at Yarrow Stadium on August 24. It is the dedicated fans that will break through the storm clouds, with their unwavering support, cheering their team much as if nothing has changed – as long as Mt Taranaki behaves itself that is.

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