Māori and Pacific involvement
Māori have been strongly involved in rugby league since its inception in New Zealand. Brothers Dick and Billy Wynyard joined the All Golds, and Māori teams toured Australia in 1908 and 1909. Among the prime movers of the Māori tours were record-breaking All Blacks wing Albert Asher and his brother Ernie, who served as secretary of the Māori Rugby League for more than 60 years. Māori players have starred in all of the most successful national teams.
The remarkable Steve Wātene spent the 1935–36 summer visiting many North Island Māori settlements to recruit players for his Manukau club. Such was Wātene’s mana that prominent footballers travelled to Auckland from as far away as Otago. Wātene then persuaded Auckland Rugby League officials to promote Manukau into the top grade. In 1936 the club won the Fox Memorial championship and the Roope Rooster knockout competition, both for the first time.
Puti Tīpene (Steve) Wātene, later a member of Parliament, was the first Māori captain of a national league team, against England in 1936 and Australia in 1937. Wātene also led the New Zealand Māori team to a stunning 16–5 victory over the 1937 Kangaroos. That side was coached by former Kiwis forward Jim Rukutai and managed by Ernie Asher, and featured famed All Blacks fullback and goalkicker George Nēpia.
Alf Mitchell, who was born in Samoa to a Samoan mother and English father, became the first Pacific Islander to represent New Zealand in rugby league, against Australia in 1935. Four years later his brother, George, was chosen to tour Britain with the Kiwis. From the mid-1950s there was a growing Pacific influence on the game, as typified by the Sorensen family which produced four internationals over two generations. From the late 20th century players with a Pacific heritage, whether born in the islands or in Australia or New Zealand, increasingly dominated professional league in Australia.
Families have always featured prominently in rugby league. In the first century of international football no fewer than 33 sets of brothers wore the Kiwis jersey. Two families provided three brothers to national teams. Ted, Walter and Wilfred Brimble, who had a Bantu (African) mother and an English father, played in the 1930s. The trio of Ropati brothers, Joe, Tea and Iva, played in the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been nine father-and-son combinations.
Whereas entire clubs changed codes in Britain and Australia, in New Zealand initial recruitment from rugby union was more on an individual basis. Some payments were made but seldom covered more than travel expenses. Most players switched codes because they liked the more open nature of the new game, were disillusioned with rugby union or were lured by the chance to represent their country. League’s physicality appealed particularly to working-class sportspeople, hence the strong outposts in mining areas such as Huntly and the West Coast of the South Island.
The rugby union players who truly ‘went professional’ were those who signed for British clubs before and after the Second World War. An international transfer ban prevented rugby league players being poached, but their rugby union counterparts were fair game. That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when court cases taken by players successfully challenged the right of clubs and national rugby-league organisations to restrict transfers. A trickle of New Zealanders to Australian and British clubs from the 1970s became a veritable torrent in the 21st century. Each year scores of young New Zealanders sought fame and fortune in the Australian junior and senior leagues. Many were recruited in their mid-teens by Australian clubs and attended academies across the Tasman.
New Zealand’s most decorated professional rugby-league player, Dean Bell, returned to his home town to captain his country’s first professional team, the Auckland Warriors, in the 1995 Australian Winfield Cup competition. Bell had shared in seven consecutive Challenge Cup triumphs with famous British club Wigan. It was Bell’s farewell season but the advent of the Warriors permanently changed the face of the game in New Zealand.
Television markedly increased the popularity and general knowledge of rugby league among the New Zealand public from the 1980s. With the introduction of the Auckland Warriors to the Australian Winfield Cup competition in 1995, there was a surge in player numbers in New Zealand. Player numbers increased, probably from about 23,000 in the mid-1980s to as many as 40,000 a decade later. There was a major slump after that. Since the NZRL was restructured in 2009 there have been sharp increases, from 15,900 players that season to 24,200 in 2010 and just over 33,500 in 2011.