Rugby historian calls for Lancaster Park museum at new stadium

Shane O’Driscoll hopes milestone moments from pre-earthquake Lancaster Park can feature in a new...
Shane O’Driscoll hopes milestone moments from pre-earthquake Lancaster Park can feature in a new museum paying homage to the stadium. PHOTO: JOHN COSGROVE
Lancaster Park has reverted to green space and now an adopted Cantabrian who has documented the history of the ground wants Christchurch’s new stadium to pay homage to its illustrious predecessor and Canterbury rugby, through a museum. Shane O’Driscoll details his plan to Chris Barclay.

He’s from Timaru and supported Otago from the bank during that epic Ranfurly Shield clash in 1994, but there is no doubt where Shane O’Driscoll’s provincial allegiances now lie.

“It’s a good result, they’ve done a good job” he said, peering through the wire fencing on Stevens St, to the right of the barricade protecting the weather-beaten, peeling War Memorial Gates, which are set for a $500,000 makeover.

Lancaster Park has reverted back to green space post-liquefaction, an expansive lawn in keeping with its designation per the Lancaster Park Vesting Act 2008, which restricts land use to sports, recreation and public assembly.

Unlike Wellington’s Athletic Park, which now houses a retirement complex, Lancaster Park was protected as a recreation venue, pleasing O’Driscoll, who developed and curates the Lancaster Park Memories Facebook page and lancasterpark.co.nz website dedicated to memoralising Christchurch’s sporting citadel.

Canterbury Rugby Football Union Historical Trust member Gary Tibbotts hopes memorabilia like this...
Canterbury Rugby Football Union Historical Trust member Gary Tibbotts hopes memorabilia like this jersey worn by halfback Justin Marshall can be featured at the Te Kaha/Canterbury Multi-Use Arena. PHOTO: GEOFF SLOAN
The 51-year-old started his research because he used to run around the area when the ground was condemned for demolition.

“I’ve always studied rugby history regardless and I felt the need to preserve some of those Lancaster Park moments. It felt like there was a bit of a calling there.”

He was surprised to discover it was also a multi-use facility, like its eventual replacement.

“There was harness racing, cycling, ballooning, jamborees and all that sort of stuff in the early days.

“It has such a varied history, it’s incredible. They tried everything … athletics, they had a squash court and a swimming pool.”

The demolished Lancaster Park on September 10, 2019. Photo: Getty Images
The demolished Lancaster Park on September 10, 2019. Photo: Getty Images
With the online research in place, O’Driscoll now has a new project in mind, driving the establishment of a museum documenting the ground’s varied and storied history.

Glimpse at his blog entries on lancasterpark.co.nz and the latest post revisits Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the ground in November 1986, almost a century earlier gas lighting and a new asphalt track with banked corner allowed the Pioneer and Christchurch Cycling Clubs to hold night meetings.

Rugby, however, would dominate a museum which, ideally, would take some pride of place at the Te Kaha/Canterbury Multi-Use Arena.

O’Driscoll has an ally in the Canterbury Rugby Football Union Historical Trust, a dedicated group of wise old rugby heads who spend Tuesdays collating and cataloguing relevant memorabilia in a room tucked away in Rugby Park’s ageing stand.

He witnessed the trust’s work for the first time last year, and is convinced it deserves a wider audience, any audience.

“They’ve never been able to find a home since the earthquakes. I’ve started a project to help them find somewhere to display their stuff. They’ve got every programme from Lancaster Park from day one.

“They’ve got so much memorabilia, balls and jerseys, programmes and souvenirs and none of it’s out on display. They’re salt-of-the-earth, all volunteers doing it for personal passion.”

Visitors to the Canterbury and Crusaders headquarters can see Super Rugby trophies in the foyer and other mementos; other historical material is showcased upstairs and in office space.

O’Driscoll, who traced his adopted red and black roots to a post-university accounting job at another earthquake casualty, the Canterbury Draught brewery, argues the trust’s inventory should be on display.

Irish club Munster has incorporated a museum into their headquarters at Thomond Park in Limerick....
Irish club Munster has incorporated a museum into their headquarters at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Supplied
“That’s where I’m heading. They need a patron for the idea, then you set up a cause and get pledges and donations,” he said.

The city council has to be onside, with O’Driscoll noting a Christchurch counterpart in Dunedin playing an integral role in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame relocating to a refurbished wing of the old railway station from 1999. 

Private sponsors also got the ball rolling before it opened in 1990. 

“I think it’s a model you could make work if the council supported you, and the obvious place is in the new stadium,” said O’Driscoll, who admitted the game plan needed work.

“In my mind I’m a bit biased because I love all that stuff, but how big is the market? How many visitors would you get except on game day?

“You’d have to refresh it.

You couldn’t have the public going once and saying: ‘I’ve been there’. You’d need topics and rotate it every six months. You’d have to make it interactive with touch screens and that sort of stuff.”

Take Munster’s spiritual home at Thomond Park in Limerick.

When the ground, which opened in 1934 was redeveloped from 2006-2008, it incorporated a full stadium tour, museum visit, entry to the home and away dressing rooms.

Irish club Munster has incorporated a museum into their headquarters. Photo: Supplied
Irish club Munster has incorporated a museum into their headquarters. Photo: Supplied
Needless to say Munster’s 12-0 win over the All Blacks in 1978 is a focal point, a topic that won’t ever be rotated.

A museum and stadium tour costs 10 Euros ($16) for adults and 8 Euros ($13) for children. On game days the museum costs $8 and $5 on top of the match ticket.

The chief executive of city council-owned Venues Otautahi, Caroline Harvey-Teare, said a museum could be included in the new stadium.

“There are plenty of spaces available that can be activated for attractions on game days and the shell and core areas of Te Kaha could be used for more permanent retail tenancies in the future. This could include a museum-style attraction among other things,” she said.

“Once Te Kaha is opened, the primary objective is for it to be a truly multi-use facility that continues to be well-used, loved and activated outside of sporting and event days.”

O’Driscoll, not a fan of Orangetheory Stadium although he took his daughter along to the loss to the Blues on Good Friday, said the new stadium needed innovation to attract crowds as rugby’s appeal wanes, particularly under lights outside of a decider.

“It’s a shame the way things are going with rugby and the crowds. Afternoon rugby where they’d get 30,000 to Lancaster Park seems a world away, doesn’t it?”

“There’s going to be quite an effort required to get them back to the new stadium,” he said.

Gary Tibbotts will be there without hesitation, preferably as a museum guide.

Once Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed, Tibbotts was back to work at the eastern end of Rugby Park’s stand, sifting through dog-eared match programmes that date back to the 1930s. There are also videos and dvds to organise.

Bruce Deans scores in front of the embankment during Canterbury's epic Ranfurly Shield reign...
Bruce Deans scores in front of the embankment during Canterbury's epic Ranfurly Shield reign-ending loss to Auckland in 1985. Photo: Supplied
He has Canterbury rugby stalwarts Les McFadden, John ‘Foxy’ Miles, Jerry Rowberry, Warren Barberel and Gail Chave among willing offsiders.

“We collect, collate and store the memorabilia of Canterbury’s rugby history,” Tibbotts said.

“It’s a treasure trove of photographs, dvds, videos, programmes … rugby jerseys, more than we can store. You name it, we’ve got it, hopefully.”

Tibbotts, 78, would love to see their collection in a museum-style setting, so the province’s proud rugby history is preserved for future generations.

“Guys like myself would run it as a volunteer. Hand on heart I’d take people through and just about recall all the history of each photo or display,” he said. 

“That’s what you need because the current people in rugby know very little about the history of Canterbury rugby.”

Tibbotts visualises audio and video presentations – he transferred a 16mm film of Canterbury’s 9-6 win over the Springboks in 1956 onto dvd – plus framed jerseys and photos of enduring moments.

He said the trust is kept busy with inquiries from members of the public and former provincial representatives.

“We’ve had players from Canterbury and even All Blacks contact us and ask: ‘Have you guys got any footage of me playing because my grandkids don’t believe I played for the All Blacks’.

“We’re able to happily provide, at no cost to them, either a programme or footage or something on their career.

“People will contact us and say: ‘My dad died a few months ago, we cleaned out the garage and we found a box of programmes’.”

Canterbury Rugby Football Union Historical Trust members Les McFadden (left) and Gary Tibbotts...
Canterbury Rugby Football Union Historical Trust members Les McFadden (left) and Gary Tibbotts with a memorial print produced by Shane O'Driscoll, a reminder of Lancaster Park's halycon days. PHOTO: GEOFF SLOAN
Tibbotts said the Canterbury Rugby Supporters Club and Referees Association had memorabilia in their rooms at Lancaster Park, which is now under the trust’s care  

“When the stadium was altered a lot of the space in the referees room was used for corporate dinners and things like that. Prior to the earthquakes a lot of that stuff was taken down and never put back up,” he said.

After the earthquakes the memorabilia was originally stored in Wigram before the space at Rugby Park became available.

“We’ve got Larry the Lamb’s (original) outfit and there’s not just rugby memorabilia,” Tibbotts said.

There is a grainy image of parachuting balloonist David Mahoney set for lift-off in 1899, a journey that ended in tragedy when the Aucklander – also known as Captain Lorraine – was blown over the Port Hills and lost his parachute (there was no basket in those days).

He was last seen in the water near Port Levy, but his body was never found.

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