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Story: Rugby union

Regarded as New Zealand’s national game from the early 20th century, when the All Blacks swept triumphantly across Britain, rugby remains hugely popular in the 2000s. Māori participation has always been high, and the national women’s team won four world cups in succession.

Story by Ron Palenski
Main image: All Black captain Richie McCaw (centre) with the Rugby World Cup trophy, 2011

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Rugby has been seen as New Zealand’s national game since the early 20th century – more because of the numbers who watch it than the numbers who play.

19th-century rugby

Charles Monro organised New Zealand’s first rugby match in Nelson in 1870, after playing at school in London. Other old boys of English public schools persuaded clubs to adopt rugby rules. Inter-regional matches were played, and the game spread into rural areas. By the mid-1890s there were over 5,000 players – although rugby was seen as violent. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) was set up in 1892.

Māori played rugby from its early days. The Native team, which was mostly Māori, toured Australia and Britain in 1888–89.

1905–6 tour

In 1905–6 the All Blacks toured Britain, winning 31 of their 32 games. They became known as the Originals.

Club, provincial and Super rugby

Rugby clubs have always been central to the game. At its peak club rugby drew large crowds.

Provinces have competed for the Ranfurly Shield since 1904, and the National Provincial Championship began in 1976.

Super rugby has been played since professional rugby began in 1996. New Zealand, Australian and South African teams compete.

International rugby

New Zealand’s main opponents have always been Australia, the ‘home’ countries (of Britain), France and South Africa. By 2014 the All Blacks’ success rate in all international matches was 76%.

The Rugby World Cup began in 1987, and was won by the All Blacks that year. Their next win was not until 2011, which they successfully defended in 2015.

Amateurs and professionals

Amateurism was a founding principle of rugby. Players who switched to rugby league (which was professional) were banned, and some All Blacks were accused of earning money from the sport – even for writing a book. In 1995 professional rugby was introduced.

Women’s and Māori rugby

Women’s games were rare until the late 20th century. Since the 1990s the national women’s team, the Black Ferns, have won four world cups.

Māori involvement has always been strong. National Māori teams (now called the Māori All Blacks) have sometimes been set up.

Other forms of rugby

Sevens rugby has teams of seven and seven-minute halves. The Wellington Sevens is a popular annual tournament. In 2016 sevens rugby made its debut as an Olympic sport at the Rio games. In touch, tackling is replaced by touching. Teams often include both men and women.

How to cite this page:

Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rugby-union (accessed 22 February 2017)

Story by Ron Palenski, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 19 Sep 2016