Rugby league, a hard, physically demanding game, is widely acknowledged as fast-moving and exciting to play and watch.
Rugby league ranks behind rugby union in terms of player numbers (in 2006–7, 2.1% of New Zealand’s population played league, compared with 5.7% for rugby union). In the 2000s it was still a niche sport in terms of geographic spread and community commitment. Its stronghold was the upper North Island, from Waikato and the Bay of Plenty northwards. Outside that area, domestic competition was patchy. There were competitions in Taranaki, Manawatū, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Wellington, the West Coast, Canterbury, Southland and Otago. Within each area there were towns without a league team.
Many New Zealand players and a New Zealand-based team (the Warriors) play in the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition. The Warriors’ success in reaching NRL grand finals in 2002 and 2011 increased the game’s popularity in New Zealand. Both matches drew more than 80,000 spectators to the ANZ Stadium in Sydney. The 2011 grand final – held during the Rugby World Cup, which was in New Zealand that year – attracted a New Zealand television audience of 692,000 in addition to the 3.3 million who tuned in across the Tasman.
Rugby league is played in Britain, Australia, France, Papua New Guinea and some Pacific nations. In the first decade of the 21st century New Zealand produced a series of tournament triumphs. The 2005 Tri-Nations victory in England was a significant breakthrough. New Zealand won the 2008 World Cup final 34–20 over Australia at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. Two years later New Zealand’s national men’s team, the Kiwis, snatched the Four Nations Trophy from the Kangaroos (the Australian national team) at the same venue, giving New Zealand simultaneous possession of the two most prized pieces of silverware – a rare event in a sport dominated by Australia in recent decades.
Ruben Wiki, New Zealand’s 2005 captain, became the first player from any nation to register 50 test appearances. Other New Zealand test records include most consecutive appearances, Gary Freeman (37); most points, Matthew Ridge (168); most tries, Nigel Vagana (19); and most goals, Matthew Ridge (73). Records in all matches for New Zealand include most appearances, Jock Butterfield (99); most points, Des White (467); most tries, Phillip Orchard (40); and most goals, Des White (223).
The Kiwi Ferns – the New Zealand women’s team – dominated the international scene, winning the women’s 2000, 2005 and 2008 World Cup tournaments. New Zealand’s claim to first international ranking was demonstrated in 2005 at North Harbour, Auckland, when the Kiwi Ferns beat Britain in one semi-final and the New Zealand Māori team beat Australia in the other.
How the game is played
Two teams of 13 compete for 80 minutes, attempting to carry and kick an oval ball over the opponent’s goal line. To prevent this, members of the opposing team attempt to gain possession by tackling the player with the ball. Once the ball is placed by hand on the ground over the line – a try, worth four points – the successful team gets a free kick at goal – a conversion – to gain another two points.
Although rugby league and rugby union are related games, there are a number of differences between the two. A league team has 13 players and a union team 15. Ways of restarting play (after the ball is kicked into touch, for example) are different. League games do not include the rucks typical of rugby union, and scrums are used as a way of restarting play. Ball handling also differs. After a tackle is made, for instance, a league game starts again with a move called ‘play the ball’: the tackled player puts the ball on the ground and rolls it backward with his or her boot. Once the ball is picked up by a teammate (known as ‘the dummy half’), play resumes. The team in possession of the ball automatically loses it on the sixth tackle. The differences make rugby league a faster game, and many changes were introduced for that purpose.
As in most countries, rugby league is a winter sport in New Zealand, with the season running from late March to early October. Britain is an exception – the introduction of Super League in 1996 was accompanied by a switch to a summer season at the elite level.