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Story: Rugby league

A physically demanding, fast-moving game, rugby league developed out of rugby union in northern England in the 1890s. In the 2000s many New Zealand players crossed the Tasman to play for Australian league teams.

Story by John Coffey
Main image: Halfback Gary Freeman during a 1995 test with Australia

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Rugby league is played by two teams of 13 who compete for 80 minutes, trying to carry or kick an oval ball across the opponent’s goal line.

History

Rugby league developed out of rugby union in northern England in the 1890s. Wellingtonian Albert Baskerville organised a New Zealand team to tour northern England in 1907–8. Known as the All Golds, the team won test series in both Britain and Australia.

The first rugby-league match in New Zealand was in Wellington in June 1908. Over the next few years provincial teams were set up, and the New Zealand Rugby League was established in 1910. However, league was opposed by the rugby union, which had strong links with the government, local bodies (which controlled playing fields), schools and newspapers. The main sports grounds were not available for rugby league. In 1921 Carlaw Park in Auckland opened as a rugby-league venue.

Players

Māori have been strongly involved in league since it began in New Zealand, with brothers Dick and Billy Wynyard in the All Golds, and Māori teams touring Australia in 1908 and 1909. In the 1930s Steve Wātene was the first Māori captain of a national rugby league team. Many Pacific players have also excelled at the game. In the 2000s Pacific Islanders were prominent in the professional leagues in Australia, which also included many other young New Zealanders.

In the 2000s rugby league was particularly strong in the northern North Island, but it still had fewer players than rugby union.

Competition at home and away

Rugby league is mostly played at amateur club level. Various national inter-club and inter-provincial competitions have been held over the years, including the Lion Red Cup from 1994 to 1996 and the Bartercard Cup from 2000 to 2007. The Rugby League Cup is New Zealand’s oldest league trophy.

In the early 2000s the national men’s team, the Kiwis, won a number of international tournaments, including the World Cup in 2008. The national women’s team, the Kiwi Ferns, won the World Cup in 2000, 2005 and 2008. Many New Zealand players and the Warriors team competed in the Australian National Rugby League competition, and the Warriors reached the grand final in 2002 and 2011.

How to cite this page:

John Coffey, 'Rugby league', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rugby-league (accessed 24 April 2018)

Story by John Coffey, published 5 Sep 2013