Newlands Rugby Stadium: The Grand old lady of South African Rugby

Newlands Rugby Stadium
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 20: General view before the Super Rugby match between DHL Stormers and Brumbies at DHL Newlands on April 20, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Carl Fourie/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Newlands Rugby Stadium is the second oldest rugby stadium in the world, with only the location of the Aviva Stadium in Lansdowne Road pre-dating it.

Newlands was originally built in 1888 and has been mostly evolved through renovation or had additional stands and corporate suites added. The original stadium at Lansdowne Road was used from 1872. The difference between Newlands and what is now the Aviva Stadium is that the former, although continuously updated, is still based on the original stadium. The latter underwent a complete rebuild between 2006 and 2010. This may give Newlands some bragging rights in terms of being the original stadium, but that comes with negatives. More on that later.

Newlands Rugby Stadium

Last Word on Rugby has published a series of articles covering iconic rugby stadiums. These stadiums include Kingsholm, Eden Park, Sixways, Ashton Gatè and Welford Road.

The early years

In the late 1880’s, urged on by the Western Province Rugby Unions secretary, TB Herold, rugby went in search of a ground. The Western Province Cricket Club had acquired a ground from the Breweries in Newlands in 1887. Rugby asked to share it but the cricket authorities were unwilling. Herold kept nagging the union, and at a meeting on 18 April 1888 the union agreed to purchase a ground. Herold identified a piece of pine forest near Newlands railway station. The railway was important and the Peninsula’s suburbs fringed the railway line in times when it was the ordinary and best means of transport.

Early history as written by Paul Dobson

The union first leased the ground, 150 yards by 150 yards plus a 21-foot road, for 25 years at 50 Pounds for the first year and 100 Pounds for each year after that. The union also had the right to 3000 gallons of water from the Liesbeeck River per week.

The lease was signed on 1 December 1888 with the owner of the breweries, the Vicomtesse de Montmort, the daughter of the founder Jacob Letterstedt.

The trees were cleared off the ground at a cost of 470 Pounds in 1889 by James Ruck who for a further 207 Pounds enclosed the ground with a galvanised iron fence and made a “carriage drive” with two entrance gates. The union also purchased a discarded shed from the Cricket Club for 40 Pounds. Ruck was then paid to dismantle the “old tin shanty” and re-erect it at the rugby ground where it served as change room, tool shed, office for the secretary and bar. Money was initially raised through a Fancy Fair in 1889.

The first games

The first match was played there was a school game between Bishops and SACS to see if the ground would stand up to it. The ground was officially opened on 31 May 1890 when Villagers played Stellenbosch. Special trains came from Stellenbosch and Cape Town and there were some 2 500 spectators at Newlands. The first referee was Billy Simkins and the player who kicked off was Nico Theunissen of Stellenbosch, a South African fast bowler. He also won the match for Stellenbosch when he kicked a dropped goal from some 40 yards out. His drop kick beat Alf Richards’s unconverted try.

For Lieutenant JS Luard, RN, later Admiral Luard, the first Western Province captain, it was his last rugby match. Early on he broke his wrist and never played again.

The first Test

The first Test was played there in 1891 between South Africa and the touring British team. In 1894 the Union purchased the ground from the new owner of the Breweries, Anders Ohlson, for 2500 Pounds. Until 1927 the field ran from east to west. In 1927 it was changed to north-south. In the early part of its existence the ground was used by the Cape Town Cricket Club and also by the Western Province Coloured RFU.

The above history is as supplied by Western Province Rugby Union and credited to Paul Dobson.

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Home teams

The teams that call Newlands home are Western Province in South Africa’s premier first class competition, the Currie Cup and the Stormers in Super Rugby. Newlands continues to pull the biggest crowds for both Currie Cup and Super Rugby games. During the international season, the stadium also hosts the Springboks.

1995 Rugby World Cup

Newlands Rugby Stadium hosted four games in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The opening game, and one other pool game and two knock out games.

The opening game

The Springboks, the host team, took on the defending Rugby World Cup champions Australia. The Springboks won that opening game 27-18, setting them up perfectly for their run into the final. The picture of Pieter Hendriks celebrating before he scored the first try of the tournament has become an iconic picture in South African rugby.

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The pool games

Aside from the opening game, Newlands played host to the Springboks vs Romania, with the Springboks winning 21-8.

The playoffs

Quarter final one, played between France and Ireland was hosted at Newlands, with France winning 36-12. Semi-final two between New Zealand and England, with the All Blacks winning 45-29. The memories of Jonah Lomu brushing England’s Mike Catt aside are often fondly remembered by Springbok and and All Black fans. Local folklore states that Mike Catt’s face imprint can still be found in the turf where Loma handed him off.

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What of the future?

As alluded to earlier, the constant refurbishing of Newlands Rugby Stadium since the very early days also has its down side. The stadium is old and will not pass muster to host major international competitions such as the Rugby World Cup.

Popular opinion is that rugby should be moved to Cape Town Stadium, built to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The problem at Cape Town Stadium is twofold. Firstly, it does not have the same number of corporate hospitality boxes that Newlands does, meaning lost revenue. Secondly, the Western Province Rugby Union owns Newlands. They would need to pay rental to use Cape Town Stadium and as it is they are not in a strong financial position.

Newlands Rugby Stadium

Whatever the outcome is for international and provincial rugby in Cape Town, Newlands will always be remembered at the traditional home of rugby in South Africa.

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