Story: Military and sport

Page 1. Military and sport overview

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Sport has a long and varied tradition in the armed forces, ranging from impromptu games to pass the time through to organised competitions. As a means of improving skills, character or physical fitness, as a morale booster to foster camaraderie, and as an identity builder, sport has been an important element of service life. Rugby has been prominent among the sports played by the military. The national perception of New Zealand’s achievements in both rugby and war were important in creating the long-held stereotype of the Kiwi male as a tough, uncomplaining, self-disciplined team player.

Sport was played both within New Zealand and overseas. In the modern regular forces, sport was used as a means of developing a competitive edge. Before the mid-1950s sport among troops overseas was largely played by civilian soldiers, who brought interests from their civilian lives into the forces.

Cricket under fire

Arthur Morrow of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers wrote this account of a skirmish in the early stages of the Waikato war at Wairoa (Clevedon), south of Auckland, in September 1863: ‘On the morning of the 15th, when some of the men were playing cricket across the river … two shots were fired at them in quick succession from the hedge adjoining the bush, about 150 yards from the stockade. The cricketers ... ran to the redoubt and the stockade, from which the fire was quickly returned. The only casualty reported on our side was a slight arm-wound … to Ensign Johnson by a spent [musket] ball.’1

Before 1914

In the 19th century, sports that required little in the way of facilities took precedence, especially boxing, athletics and tug-of-war. Rifle shooting provided competition in an essential military skill. Sometimes local military teams held shooting competitions with visiting warships’ crews. From 1861 servicemen were to the fore in contesting the national championship. This competition, for a trophy known since 1908 as the Ballinger Belt, is the longest-running sporting championship in New Zealand.

In garrison towns there was more opportunity for team games. During the New Zealand wars British regiments in Auckland, Wellington and elsewhere in the North Island played cricket matches among themselves and with colonial military and civilian teams. The regiments stationed around New Plymouth regularly put up teams against the Taranaki Cricket Club, whose members included local militia and volunteers. Later the Armed Constabulary played cricket and rugby at various places in the North Island. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries units of the volunteer force sometimes formed teams to participate in local competitions. They also occasionally held military tournaments, largely involving military-derived sports.

A grand day

A ‘grand military tournament and assault at arms’, for ‘all Bona Fide Members of the New Zealand Defence Force’, was held at Palmerston North on the King’s Birthday holiday in 1907.2 Events included a tug-of-war, bayonet fighting, wrestling on horseback, drill, signalling and first-aid competitions. Riders also took part in a cockade fight or balaclava melée, where two teams attempted to knock plumes off their opponents’ helmets; heads and posts, where they sliced off ‘heads’ on wooden posts; tent pegging, where riders speared small wooden pegs embedded in the ground; and the Lloyd-Lindsay competition, in which teams of horsemen jumped hurdles, then dismounted and fired at targets.

World wars

The outbreak of war in 1914 raised vigorous debate over the role of sport. Sport was encouraged among army recruits as a way of keeping fit, building character, encouraging teamwork and passing time in camp. This was a continuation of pre-war ideas that sport kept young men in good physical condition to defend the empire. Some people argued, however, that civilian sport should be curtailed during wartime and sportsmen eligible for service should join up. Some players refused to take part in sport against ‘shirkers’ whom they considered should be in the army. It was countered that many sportsmen had already enlisted and that sport helped prepare potential recruits. The introduction of conscription in 1916 largely defused arguments over sport and enlistment.

In both world wars international matches and most provincial championships, such as the Ranfurly and Plunket rugby and cricket shields, were cancelled. Club matches continued to be held and were well attended.

During the world wars, the large groups of men training for overseas service often put up teams for local sporting competitions. US servicemen based in New Zealand from 1942 to 1944 brought their sports with them. A crowd of 20,000 turned up to watch an exhibition baseball game between two American marine teams at Athletic Park, Wellington, in January 1943.

Sport in the regular forces

The change from citizen-based to regular armed forces in the 1950s introduced a new ethos to sport in the armed forces. Sport was seen as a useful adjunct to military training. It became well organised and extensive, with numerous inter-services contests (including police teams). Defence-force teams also competed in international defence-force competitions.

For several decades after the Second World War, rugby was the most prominent service sport, with touring international rugby teams playing fixtures against combined services teams. In the 2000s combined services teams continued to tour overseas. Five servicemen – Patrick Rhind, Stan (‘Tiny’) Hill, Henare (‘Buff’) Milner, George Skudder and Wayne (‘Buck’) Shelford – have become All Blacks. With the introduction of professionalism in 1996, players became unable to combine military service with top-level rugby.

Service sport has become much more diverse. In the 2000s the army, for example, designated 12 approved team sports in which regular competitions were organised and representative teams selected. Participants in a range of sports occasionally won national honours.

The increasing number of women in the armed forces has led to a high level of participation in service sport by women.

  1. Quoted in James Cowan, The New Zealand wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1983. p. 455 (originally published 1925). Back
  2. Feilding Star, 6 November 1907, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon, 'Military and sport - Military and sport overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 December 2023)

Story by Ian McGibbon, published 5 Sep 2013