Lansdowne Road, Twickenham and Eden Park – venue for the 2011 Rugby World Cup final - are three of the most iconic rugby pitches in the world but one picturesque location on the South Island of New Zealand can lay claim to possibly the most scenic.
Less than one hour’s drive west of Christchurch on the edge of the Rakaia River lies Terrace Downs, an amazing five-star resort and part-time secret training base for New Zealand’s most famous sporting team, the All Blacks.
Billed as New Zealand’s premier high country resort, Terrace Downs has an immaculately maintained rugby pitch in open space near the base of a magnificent mountain range which encompasses well known Mt Hutt National Park and its numerous top-notch ski fields.
In the lead-up to New Zealand’s biggest ever event, the All Blacks had earmarked the resort as a potential training base, however the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake and subsequent aftershocks put paid to these plans with all seven games intended for the rugby-mad province of Canterbury moved to alternative venues.
No less than a dozen of the All Blacks finest players, both past and present, have taken to the field at Terrace Downs over the decade the resort has been in existence, including current captain Richie McCaw and poster boy Dan Carter.
One of Canterbury’s finest exports and the man charged with Australia’s greatest sporting mission of 2011, that of bringing ‘Bill’ (World Cup trophy), back to Australia for a record third time, Robbie ‘Dingo’ Deans, is just one of a number of coaches who has used the pitch as a secret training base over the years.
Deans is the most successful coach in Super Rugby history, having guided the Crusaders to five championships.
He was also a one time assistant coach of the All Blacks, all key stats the passionate and knowledgeable locals in the region are only too proud to tell visiting Australians regardless of their interest in rugby.
The Terrace Downs staff take pride in their establishment and everyone has a story about a time the All Blacks came to town, including local Cantabrian, Chris, who assists with maintaining the sprawling grounds, including taking guests for a spot of clay pigeon shooting or archery.
Chris is reluctant to name names but reckons not every talented All Black who has stepped foot onto the property has the same ability with a gun as they do with a Gilbert football.
The locals also have long memories, something rugby union convert and current All Black Sonny Bill Williams discovered first hand earlier this year. Williams was travelling through the Canterbury area one evening when he ran out of petrol on a country road.
A kind local farmer assisted Williams with fuel but refused to take payment from the giant Kiwi. Williams instead offered to provide tickets to the National Provincial Championships, the country’s pre-eminent rugby competition, should the Canterbury side which he plays for make it.
The Crusaders made the final and won the championship, but Williams forgot his promise, only discovering his mistake when he received a letter from the farmer at season’s end to congratulate him on the victory but also to question him on his offering.
The farmer's wife was fortunately a teacher up the road from Terrace Downs at a local primary school and so The Crusaders organisation helped Williams with a solution by inviting the school kids to a Crusaders pre-season training session at Terrace Downs which was attended by many of the kids in the area.
It’s quite surreal to look out across the championship golf course (rated one of the best in NZ), down past the grazing cattle and across to the rugby field in the shadows of Mt Hutt with weather patterns that change as frequently as the locals’ thoughts on who will win the World Cup this year.
It’s even more surreal to think that some of the world’s finest players have plied their trade on this little known rugby field far from the bright stadium lights and grandstand seating that will take centre stage at Eden Park when the new champions of world rugby are crowned in just a few weeks time.
Terrace Downs is a great base to enjoy some of the country’s best skiing from. Other activities include jet boating on the Rakaia River, hot air ballooning and 18 holes of championship golf. A cheeky kick of the football on the resort’s rugby pitch with camera in hand is also an option worth considering for Wallabies fans.
Air New Zealand has competitive fares from various Australian cities to Christchurch departing daily.This article was produced with assistance from Tourism NZ and Air New Zealand.