In cities, the earliest organised sporting occasions were commemorative days – usually public holidays. On Wellington’s first anniversary in January 1841 there were races involving whaleboats, sailing boats and horses. Christchurch’s second anniversary day saw sack races, hurdles, shooting, and the old English traditions of catching a greasy pig and climbing a soaped pole. The opening of the rail tunnel between Christchurch and Lyttelton in 1867 led to a major increase in participation in the New Year’s regatta at Lyttelton. By 1896 25,000 people were watching.
Sports days were organised on other occasions such as St Patrick’s Day, or Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, when Wellington held military parades, Highland dancing at the opera house, lectures and concerts. In Christchurch the boating season on the Avon opened with a gala day, with flags flying and crowds on the river bank.
The emergence of clubs represented the next institutionalised stage of city sport. Cricket was the most important organised colonial game. By 1842 the Wellington club had been established. It organised games between the Blues and the Reds, with runs marked by cuts on a stick. The Christchurch Cricket Club was formed within six months of the first four ships arriving. In Dunedin, hotel owner Shadrach Jones organised a cricketing festival on ‘The Oval’ in January 1864, with teams from Otago, Southland, Canterbury and England. Touring English cricket teams drew spectators in the cities, with up to 15,000 watching an all-England team in Christchurch play the local 22 in 1877.
City sports grounds were established. Wellington’s Basin Reserve had a grandstand by 1868, and seven years later Canterbury cricket purchased an area which became Lancaster Park. In Auckland the Domain became the great site for cricket.
Although New Zealand’s rugby prowess has long been linked with the country’s rural identity, the first game under rugby rules was played at Nelson on 14 May 1870 between Nelson College and Nelson Rugby Football Club. At the time Nelson, as the seat of a bishop, was legally a city – so New Zealand rugby was officially born in a city.
Football in various forms was played from early days of Pākehā settlement – the first football club was set up in Christchurch in 1863. After 1870, when rugby rules were adopted, the game spread quickly, and clubs were established in all the main centres. By the 1880s there were thriving city rugby and cricket competitions.