Story: Northland region

Page 14. Leisure and sport

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Overcoming isolation

Events such as picnics, concerts and musical performances initially centred on home, church and school. As settlement expanded, a variety of organisations, societies and clubs flourished, serving to overcome some of the loneliness of rural life as well as forging community solidarity.

Community events

From early days Māori and Europeans joined together in celebrating special occasions, big and small – royal coronations, agricultural and pastoral shows, the return of troops, gala balls, weddings and farewells. Important too in this community life were events at marae that drew hundreds and occasionally thousands of people. Pākehā expected to be involved and the occasions were usually mixed. Perhaps the north’s many European–Māori families encouraged this.

In modern times, annual celebrations such as Waitangi Day draw large, mixed crowds to enjoy organised performances and sideshow fun. The north makes the most of its coastal waters by holding its famous fishing contests.

Cash for a catch

Fishing contests, with prize money for the biggest fish of various species, are a distinctive part of Northland’s sporting life. An annual contest has been held at Ninety Mile Beach since 1954, and similar events are held around the region during the summer holidays.


The north’s local loyalties are strong and interests are strenuously defended, especially in sport. Horse racing on beaches and flat land began early and by 1911 there were around a dozen racing clubs in Whangārei district alone. In some areas golf and tennis clubs were the focus of social life. Organised sports such as cricket, netball and softball grew in popularity in the 20th century.


Matches were first played in the 1870s, and Whangārei Rugby Club was set up by 1885. Local miners gave the game fresh impetus, and the first rugby union was formed in Whangārei in 1895. Called the Marsden Football Union, it changed its name several times. In 1920 it became the North Auckland Rugby Union, and in 1994 the Northland Rugby Union.

The north has produced outstanding administrators and players – among them J. B. (Johnny) Smith, ‘Doc’ Manahi Paewai, Sid Going, Peter Jones and Ian Jones (the ‘Kamo kid’). In the early 21st century Northland had the most rugby clubs of any union in the country. The Northland colours – blue with a kauri-tree logo – are virtually the regional flag.


Despite the commitment to rugby, Northlanders have excelled in men’s and women’s hockey, providing a succession of players for national teams. Jenny McDonald, a national representative from 1971 to 1985, is considered to have been New Zealand’s finest woman hockey player. She was raised at Maungakaramea, near Whangārei.

How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange, 'Northland region - Leisure and sport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Claudia Orange, published 12 Dec 2005, updated 1 May 2015