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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Beginnings in New Zealand

The Nelson Football Club (founded in 1868 to provide winter sport for its members) introduced rugby union to New Zealand by adopting the code in 1870 at the invitation of Charles John Monro who had returned from Sherborne School in England. Monro taught the members the new game, his pupils also including interested students of Nelson Boys' College. On Saturday, 14 May 1870, Nelson College played Nelson Club (“The Town” it was called) at the Botanical Reserve, Nelson. This was the first interclub rugby union football match to be played in New Zealand.

The Nelsonians continued with various matches between teams drawn from the college and the club and, later in the year when Charles Monro visited Wellington, he arranged a rugby match between Nelson and a Wellington team which had been playing Melbourne rules football. The Nelson men travelled to Wellington in the Government mail steamer Luna and, on Monday 12 September, beat the Wellington team at Petone. As a result the Wellington club was founded on 12 May 1871.

Rugby was introduced to Wanganui by A. Drew, the 1870 Nelson club captain, and several members of the Armed Constabulary who were stationed there. The Wanganui club was founded on 20 July 1872. Next came Auckland club (founded in 1870), its members adopting rugby in 1873 after a period of mainly soccer. Thames club followed suit and, when North Shore was formed in June, it too voted for rugby. In 1874 rugby began in the Waikato (Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, and Cambridge having teams), and in Taranaki clubs were established at New Plymouth (Taranaki club) and at Hawera (Egmont club). In this season, too, the game went ahead in Auckland with the Parnell, Grafton, Ponsonby, and Mount Hobson clubs coming into being, with Auckland College and Grammar School taking up the sport.

The year 1875 is notable for several facts: the combined clubs of Auckland toured Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson, and New Plymouth and lost all the matches. They played the Wellington club at Wellington, and the combined Dunedin and Dunedin Union clubs in Dunedin. (Both the latter were founded in 1872, the second as North Dunedin club), to play the round-ball game. They had to learn rugby rules to play the Auckland team. In Canterbury a South Canterbury club had been established at Timaru on 21 April, and a Temuka club at Temuka on 28 April. But only the Christchurch club played the touring side. Christchurch club is the oldest “football” club in New Zealand, having started in 1863, but it did not begin rugby until a few weeks before the contest with Auckland. Previously Christchurch club played under a hybrid set of rules which were, in the main, a mixture of soccer and Melbourne rules, with additions to suit local conditions. At Nelson, Auckland played representatives of Nelson and Picton clubs. The Picton club, along with the Blenheim club, had been formed earlier in the 1875 season. At New Plymouth the Auckland clubs were defeated by Taranaki club. Rugby also began on the West Coast (Greymouth club being the original organisation), and in Hawke's Bay, when the Napier club (founded 1874) adopted rugby rules.

In 1876 rugby came to Rangitikei (at Marton, Bulls, and Sandon); to North Otago (at Oamaru); to Hawera and Patea in Taranaki; to Invercargill, Otautau, and Riverton in Southland; and to Greytown and Masterton in Wairarapa. Clubs were formed in North Canterbury (Rangiora), Waimate, Kaiapoi, and Te Awamutu. A combined side from Canterbury toured Nelson, Wellington (at Lower Hutt), and Auckland (at Ellerslie). Athletic (Wellington), Waverley, Merivale, Leeston, Southbridge, Rakaia, and Otago University clubs were formed in 1877. In 1878 South Wairarapa (Featherston and Carterton clubs), Poverty Bay (Gisborne club) and Manawatu (Palmerston North and Feilding clubs) turned to rugby.

The First Unions

The first unions were founded in 1879, one in each Island. Canterbury was the first. Delegates representing Christchurch, Christ's College, Temuka, North Canterbury (Rangiora), Eastern (Christchurch), South Canterbury (Timaru), Ashburton, and Southbridge clubs met at Timaru on Saturday, 26 July. In later years clubs in the southern portion of the province were to break away as South Canterbury and Mid-Canterbury unions, and sub-unions, each affiliated to the parent body, formed in other districts. The second, Wellington union, was formed at a meeting on 20 October. The original clubs were Wellington and Athletic clubs. Later, the Wairarapa clubs, Greytown and Masterton clubs, joined the union. Palmerston North club was admitted in 1883 and a third Wairarapa club, Carterton club, in 1885. Clubs in the Wanganui, Oroua, and Rangitikei districts did not affiliate, although Wanganui and Manchester (Feilding) clubs supplied players to the representative side. The province has since been divided by the establishment of the Wanganui, Wairarapa, Bush, Manawatu, and Horowhenua unions.

The Otago union (the third) was set up on 26 March 1881. It comprised Dunedin, Dunedin Union, Otago Boys' High School, Zingari (Dunedin), Montrose, Montecillo, Orakanui College (Waitati) Oamaru, and Invercargill clubs. The original area has now been split with the formation of the Southland and North Otago unions.

Auckland union was founded at Auckland on 20 April 1883 from four clubs, Auckland (now defunct), Grafton, North Shore, and Ponsonby. The union gradually extended and at one time controlled almost the whole of Auckland Province. In 1909 the southern part and, later, the northern became independent. Hawke's Bay union was formed on 3 May 1884 by the Hastings, Napier, Napier Union, and Petane Clubs. Later the union extended to reach from Dannevirke in the south to Wairoa in the north and to take in the Taupo district as well. Nelson union was next. The original clubs, Nelson, Prince Albert, Nelson Star, and Nelson Boys' College clubs met at Nelson on 12 June 1885. The Golden Bay – Motueka area later formed a separate union. Two more unions were founded in 1886: the Wairarapa union, at Carterton, on 27 March, with Masterton, Greytown, and Carterton clubs; and the Manawatu union, at Palmerston North, on 17 April, with Palmerston North, Manchester (Feilding), and Foxton clubs. The first division of Otago union took place on 19 February 1887 when, at a meeting held in Invercargill, Southland union, the most southerly in the world, was established. Five clubs supported the proposal to be of independent status – Invercargill, Invercargill Star, Invercargill Pirate, Gore, and Riverton clubs.

In 1888 Canterbury union was divided with the setting up at Timaru on 8 March of the South Canterbury union. This comprised South Canterbury (later Timaru), Fairlie Creek, Geraldine, Temuka, Waimate, Winchester, and Timaru Pirate clubs. Timaru Pirate club was the result of Crusader and Invincible (both Timaru) clubs amalgamating. After the first meeting of the union Geraldine and Winchester clubs combined to form Waihi club.

The Wanganui union was formed at a meeting in April 1888 from the Wanganui, Gordon, Wanganui Railway, and Wanganui Collegiate School clubs. In July the first of the Rangitikei clubs, Marton and Turakina clubs, joined up. Hunterville club followed and, as the Main Trunk opened up, a sub-union was formed at Taihape and added to the Wanganui union. The Marlborough union was formed on 27 June from the Marlborough (Blenheim), St. Andrew's (Blenheim), Union (Blenheim), and Waitohi (Picton) clubs.

Four new unions were founded in 1889–90. The Hawera club convened a meeting at Hawera on 31 May 1889 of delegates from the Hawera, Waimate (Manaia), New Plymouth, Okaiawa, and Eltham clubs. This meeting agreed to form the Taranaki union. During the year Stratford and Midhirst clubs united as Manganui club, Tikorangi and Waitara clubs combined as Clifton club, and Inglewood and New Plymouth Star clubs were (among others) founded and became part of the union. Bush union was founded at Pahiatua on 19 April 1890 from the Pahiatua, Eketahuna, and Woodville clubs. It was first proposed to call the union the “Seventy Mile Bush Union”, but as Dannevirke club chose to remain with the Hawke's Bay union, the present title was adopted. The West Coast union was set up by delegates from Greymouth, Greymouth White Star, Hokitika, Kumara, Cobden, Reefton, Westport, Cape Foulwind, Brunner, and Black Diamond clubs at a meeting held at Greymouth on 24 May. The clubs in the northern area were later to assume union control for themselves. The Poverty Bay union was established at Gisborne on 30 August 1890 from the Gisborne, Turanganui, Poverty Bay (Gisborne), and Waerenga-a-hika clubs. Some time afterwards the union took in the East Coast clubs, these later resigning to found a new union in 1921.

Early Progress

Rugby grew considerably in and after the 1880s. The Bay of Plenty and Thames Valley districts took to the game when the Tauranga and Katikati clubs were founded. In 1886 rugby came to the Buller district when the Westport club was founded on 17 July. In 1882 the first overseas team to play in New Zealand began a tour at Auckland. This was from the Southern Rugby Union of New South Wales. It was generally expected that the home sides would be no match for the New South Welshmen, but Auckland Province (twice) and Otago won their matches. The record of the tourists was four wins to three losses. On 22 May 1884 the first New Zealand team to go overseas paid a return visit to New South Wales, winning all its eight matches and scoring 167 points to 17 points against. New South Wales made a second tour to New Zealand in 1886, to lose 10 of the 12 engagements, and having 130 points scored against their 20. Auckland (thrice), Wellington (twice), Canterbury (twice), Otago (twice), and Hawke's Bay defeated the visitors. In the matter of tries, New South Wales gained three, to 34 scored by local sides.

First British Team

In 1888 a British team first visited New Zealand. Nine matches were played from April on before the team went to Australia, then 10 matches in September when it returned. It was a strong team, though it comprised only English and Scottish footballers. And, though it was expected to win all its matches, it lost two – to Auckland and to Taranaki clubs – and drew four others. But it defeated two South Island XVs. This visit taught the value of systematic passing and of heeling out of the scrummage. It had previously been considered illegal to heel the ball, the contention being that the forwards were placed off side, as they were then in front of the ball. The British visit dispelled the illusion. Similarly, the possibility of the passing game had not been explored. But the cohesion among the visitors as the result of brilliant back play and handling led to an improvement in New Zealand play. The tour was not without tragedy. The captain, R. L. Seddon, was drowned in the Hunter River (New South Wales) during the Australian visit.

New Zealand Native Team

The first New Zealand team to visit the British Isles was organised by J. A. Warbrick. At first the team was meant to comprise only native players, but four “whites” were finally included to strengthen the combination. All the players were New Zealand born and this gave the team the title of “The New Zealand Native Team”. It played 74 matches in Britain for 49 wins, five drawn games, and 20 losses. Ireland was beaten (13–4) at Dublin, but Wales won (5–0) at Swansea, and England won (7–0) at Blackheath. Before leaving New Zealand the team played nine matches for seven wins and two losses; and two matches (one won, one drawn) at Melbourne on the way to England. It won its 14 games on its return to Australia and seven of the eight played in New Zealand. Altogether, the side played 107 games.

Majority Attained

New Zealand rugby reached its majority by 1890. There were then 700 active clubs and 16 major unions. Clubs rose and fell – some existed only for one, two, or three years; some for a little longer. Shifting population, the moving on of road and railway construction gangs, surveying parties, Armed Constabulary, garrison and volunteer troops, and bushmen, of whom nearly every concentration had a team, accounted for this. In some towns groups of young men, youths, and boys formed sides, mainly to play against those of their own age of other districts, an idea, no doubt, which accounts for some of the unusual titles given to their teams. Various societies – Church, civil, and school (both primary and secondary) – contributed to the number of clubs seeking matches. A town's senior and junior teams invariably had separate identities. With the formation of the unions not all active clubs sought affiliation, preferring to arrange matches at will. Those clubs, however, which did not join a union gradually ceased to exist, their memberships being absorbed into clubs with affiliation.

The New Zealand Union

As the game improved and became popular, it was evident to those interested in its welfare that changes in control were becoming necessary. There had been many small disputes about fixtures, scoring values, and interpretation of the laws of the game, and it was held that these could be overcome if a supreme authority nearer at home than the Rugby Football Union (England) could be formed to give guidance and pass judgment on vital matters. Visitors also had the added difficulty of having to deal with local unions separately, instead of with an overall governing body. The idea of a New Zealand union was not a new one. Wellington club communicated with other clubs during 1879 about the matter, but received no support. In 1879, also, the suggestion was made at the foundation meeting of Canterbury union. In 1888 Auckland union circularised other unions on the same subject, meeting with little response. The problem was not solved, however, until it was taken up by E. D. Hoben, secretary of the Hawke's Bay union. Hoben had given many years to rugby matters before arriving in Napier, having been one of those responsible for the game in the Bay of Plenty. He was secretary for Tauranga club before leaving the district and he became the founder of the New Zealand union as we know it today. Hoben spent much of his time during 1891 touring the colony putting his idea of a New Zealand union before the various local unions, explaining the proposed working of such a union and the benefits to be obtained by having the headquarters of the game in New Zealand. The support given him during his tour was such that he felt encouraged to convene a meeting, which was held in the rooms of the Club Hotel, Wellington, on 7 November, to consider the question. Delegates representing Wellington, Otago, Auckland, Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay, Taranaki, and Manawatu were present. The meeting lasted two days. A constitution was finally drafted for examination by the unions, the need for a national union emphasised, and a decision made to meet again the next year to confirm the ideas and found the New Zealand union. Delegates met again in Wellington on 16 April 1892 and, despite some opposition, the union was founded. Representatives of Wellington, Auckland, Hawke's Bay, Manawatu, Otago, Canterbury, Wairarapa, and Taranaki unions took part, with promised support from South Canterbury, Marlborough, Nelson, Bush, and Poverty Bay unions, who were unable to be represented. After the decision was reached, Otago and Canterbury delegates withdrew as they did not agree and indicated that their unions would not affiliate. When, however, Canterbury, Otago, and Southland unions had affiliated within three years, rugby in New Zealand was unified.

Additional Unions

The game developed after the New Zealand union was founded, and new clubs were formed as population grew. Most clubs affiliated with existing unions, but there was soon a demand for new unions. Twelve have been added since then, making 28 members affiliated with the national union. The 12 new unions are: Horowhenua, founded at Manakau on 29 April 1893 by Manakau, Levin, Otaki, and Shannon clubs. Buller, founded at Westport on 18 April 1894, with Westport, Westport union, Addisons, and Charleston clubs. The area was formerly part of West Coast union. Waikato, founded as South Auckland union at Te Aroha on 8 May 1909 by the amalgamation of the several organisations in the southern part of Auckland Province affiliated to Auckland union as sub-unions. The area was eventually divided until only the present boundaries remain. The title was changed in 1921. Bay of Plenty was founded at Rotorua, on Easter Saturday of 1911, by delegates of the sub-unions of Rotorua, Opotiki, Whakatane, Te Puke, Tauranga, and Taupo (once part of the South Auckland union). Golden Bay – Motueka was founded by amalgamation of the Motueka and Golden Bay sub-unions at Takaka on 10 April 1920. The union had been part of Nelson union. North Auckland, which was formed when Whangarei union applied to the New Zealand union to have the Northland sub-unions combined as a major union. The application was granted in 1921. The union was formerly part of Auckland and originally comprised Whangarei, Northern Wairoa, Bay of Islands, Otamatea, and Hokianga sub-unions. East Coast, formerly part of Poverty Bay union, comprised the pre-war wards and the later sub-unions founded during the reconstruction after the First World War. The amalgamation took place on 4 September 1921 and affiliation was granted in 1922. Thames Valley, formerly part of Auckland union, was admitted to the New Zealand union with major status in 1922 on the joining together of Hauraki Plains, Paeroa, Waihi, and Piako (later Te Aroha) sub-unions. King Country, the result of the uniting of Taumarunui, Maniapoto, Ruapehu, and Ohura Valley sub-unions. The district took in parts from the Wanganui, Taranaki, and Waikato unions, and was granted direct affiliation in 1922. North Otago, founded in 1904 as a sub-union of Otago union, assumed full status in 1927. Mid-Canterbury was also granted direct affiliation in 1927. Founded as Ashburton County union in 1904, the union was first a sub-union of South Canterbury union, and later of Canterbury union, being granted direct affiliation in 1927. The title of Mid-Canterbury union was adopted in 1952. Counties, founded as South Auckland union (the second of that name), by the amalgamation in 1926 of the sub-unions in South Auckland, was affiliated as a sub-union to Auckland union. It became a major union in 1955.


Arthur Cameron Swan, New Zealand Rugby Football Union official historian, Lower Hutt.