Rugby was first played in Otago in the early 1870s. Its heyday was the late 1930s and 1940s, when the Ranfurly Shield was held by either Otago or Southland for 15 years. Otago’s triumphs were strongly associated with the innovative coaching of ‘Young Vic’ Cavanagh.
The high point of the southern rugby year was the annual Southland–Otago match, which attracted tens of thousands of supporters to Carisbrook in Caversham to cheer for either the blue and gold (Otago) or maroon (Southland).
North Otago’s rugby union became a separate entity in 1927. In the 2010s its team played in the Heartland championship, and was part of the catchment for the lower South Island Highlanders franchise in the Super 15 international competition.
Other team sports
Prominent Otago cricketers have included the batsmen Bert Sutcliffe and Glenn Turner, fast bowler Frank Cameron, all-rounder Lance Cairns and wicketkeeper/batsmen Warren Lees and Brendon McCullum. Otago women have excelled at hockey; the Maniototo team were national champions four times between 1957 and 1964, despite the area’s small population. The Southern Steel netball team, combining Southland and Otago, won the ANZ Premiership netball competition in 2017 and 2018.
Track and field
Yvette Williams (later Corlett), Olympic champion and world record-holder in the long jump, was the best all-round female athlete in the world in the early 1950s.
The pinnacle of Duncan Laing’s long coaching career at Dunedin’s Moana Pool was Danyon Loader’s two Olympic gold medals at Atlanta in 1996.
Galloping was based at South Dunedin’s Forbury Park in the late 1800s before moving to Wingatui on the Taieri Plain, where Hector Anderton trained many fine jumpers. 1970 Melbourne Cup winner Baghdad Note hailed from Wingatui. From the early 1900s Forbury Park was a venue for trotting and greyhound racing.
The forested areas of the Blue Mountains and the Catlins are popular with pig and deer hunters. The more remote terrain behind Lakes Wakatipu and Wānaka is exploited by hunters of deer, chamois and tahr.
The Clutha and its tributaries, the Manuherikia and Pomahaka, are trout-fishing rivers, and the Clutha, Taieri and Waitaki have salmon. All Otago’s lakes are stocked with brown or rainbow trout.
A stadium for the south?
2007–9 saw much debate over the proposal to build a covered stadium in North Dunedin to replace the Carisbrook rugby ground. Supporters believed it would bring visitors and spending to Dunedin and the wider region; critics said the numbers didn’t stack up. The Forsyth Barr stadium was completed in 2011. It hosts concerts by visiting artists as well as major rugby fixtures.
Summer sees an array of water sports – swimming, waterskiing and boating – on Otago’s lakes. Winter brings curling (a kind of bowling on frozen surfaces), luge and skating at Naseby’s modern facilities, and on smaller lakes, ponds and dams elsewhere in Central Otago when the weather is cold enough.
The opening of Coronet Peak skifield in 1939 launched the Queenstown Lakes district as a skiing area. Since 1977, skifields have also been developed near Wānaka, at Treble Cone, Cardrona and Waiorau Snow Farm and Park. Near Queenstown, Coronet Peak, much expanded from its pre-war beginnings, is complemented by the Remarkables field, which opened in 1985. Skiers from the northern hemisphere train in Otago during the European summer. Wānaka-based 16-year-olds Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous both won bronze medals on the same day at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In 2022, Sadowski-Synnott won gold and silver medals at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The Otago Central Rail Trail, which opened in 2000, runs along the defunct Central Otago railway line. The 155-kilometre trail attracts thousands of cycle tourists each year, as does the 55-kilometre Lake Dunstan trail between Cromwell and Clyde.
In the 2010s Queenstown and Wānaka were the principal home of adventure sports, notably bungy jumping – the world’s first commercial operation was in the Kawarau gorge. White-water rafting, jet boating and paragliding were also popular.