Story: Rugby union

Page 1. Rules, participation and audience

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Rugby union has been regarded as New Zealand’s national game since the early 20th century.

How the game is played

Rugby is played between two teams of 15 players over two halves of 40 minutes. The aim is to win by scoring more points than the opponent. Points are scored by touching the ball down over the opposition’s try-line (worth five points), place-kicking the ball over the crossbar of the goal posts after a try (a conversion – two points) or when the other team is penalised (three points), and drop-kicking the ball over the crossbar in general play (three points).

Players may pass the ball backwards to other players, but not forwards. When the ball goes out of the field, it is thrown back into a line-out. When other infringements of the rules occur there is a scrum (when the eight forwards pack down against each other) or a penalty. There are seven backs, who are normally fast and elusive runners, to carry the ball.


In 2015 more than 150,000 New Zealanders were registered to play rugby. Of these more than half were children aged 12 or under, and less than a fifth were senior players (those not in junior club or school teams). There were more than 12,000 coaches and nearly 2,000 referees.

A 2013/14 survey suggested that among all sport and recreational activities, rugby ranked 26th, with 3.6% of the population aged 16 and over participating in the game at least once in the previous 12 months. Men’s participation rate was 6.8%; women’s was under 2%. 

There was a distinctive involvement by particular ethnic groups. While about 3% of New Zealand Europeans aged 16 and over played rugby, about 10% of Māori and 13.5% of Pacific peoples did so. More than 50% of rugby players were Pacific or Māori people.


Rugby union’s significant position in New Zealand culture rests less on the numbers playing than on the numbers watching. Most club and school games attract few spectators. However inter-provincial contests, Super Rugby games played by professional players and international matches involving the national team, the All Blacks, attract many spectators and extensive media coverage.

In 2011 the Rugby World Cup matches in New Zealand attracted an average of over 30,000 spectators – although many of these were overseas visitors. Test matches in New Zealand normally attract over that number. However Super 15 games in 2011 drew on average less than 10,000, and the average gate at the provincial ITM Cup final from 2007 to 2010 was just under 15,000. In Wellington, an average of 3,816 people attended each ITM Cup game in 2011.

Television viewing is substantial. More than 2 million New Zealanders watched the World Cup final in October 2011 – just over half of all New Zealanders above the age of five. Each weekend during the 2015 rugby season, Sky Television (to which about half of all households subscribed) had coverage of six or seven Super Rugby games, five special rugby programmes, numerous replays and a dedicated rugby channel.

In September 2010, research suggested that 64% of New Zealanders were interested in rugby, compared with 45% for football and 44% for netball. Rugby has more television coverage and more press columns, and is the subject of more tearoom banter than any other sport.

How to cite this page:

Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union - Rules, participation and audience', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Ron Palenski, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Sep 2016