Exclusion of women
The game of rugby union, like its various footballing cousins, was designed in Britain by males for males. When rugby came to New Zealand, there was no place for women. Suggestions that women could play were opposed by doctors. In 1921 Christchurch doctor William Simpson stated, ‘Football for girls would prove deleterious from both the physical and temperamental standpoint.’1
A women’s game
Although football in rural Britain was normally played by men, there were exceptions. In Inverness married women and spinsters used to have a match, about which it was written:
‘A time there is for all, my mother often says,
When she, with skirts tucked very high,
With girls at football plays’.2
A game apparently played in Wellington in 1888 between a team from Wellington Girls’ High School and the Hallelujah Lasses Club was an isolated novelty. As late as the 1970s, after-match functions at Athletic Park, Wellington, the headquarters of the New Zealand game, were for men only. Wives of officials and players were confined to a ‘ladies only’ room a corridor away from their men.
Until the last third of the 20th century, women’s games continued to be novelty affairs. It was only in the 1980s, when women took the game seriously, that men took notice too. A University of Canterbury women’s team played in the northern hemisphere in 1988 and was invited to play in the 1991 European Cup, which was renamed the World Cup. National women’s teams fielded in 1989 and 1991 (beaten by the United States in a semi-final of the World Cup) were not recognised by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.
Official recognition came in 1992, the union’s centenary year. The national women’s team, known as the Black Ferns, won the first four World Cup tournaments authorised by the International Rugby Board (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010). But even that was not enough to supplant the men. In 2006 the All Blacks were named the NZRFU’s team of the year despite the women winning the World Cup. The Black Ferns won a fifth World Cup in 2017 and a sixth in 2022, when the tournament was played in New Zealand, attracting record crowds and intense media interest.
On 7 September 1921 the Springbok team defeated a New Zealand Māori team at Napier 9–8 amid complaints of rough play and poor refereeing. Two days later a cable sent by a South African reporter was published. It read: ‘Most unfortunate match ever played ... Bad enough having play team officially designated New Zealand natives, but spectacle thousands Europeans frantically cheering on band of colored men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted.’3 The leak caused an outcry.
Māori played a significant part in the early history of rugby through their quick adoption of the game, their role in organising the 1888 Native tour, and their pioneering use of the haka and the black singlet with the silver fern. Tom Ellison, the promoter in New Zealand of the wing forward position, captained the first official New Zealand team in 1893.
The threat from rugby league led to the organisation of a Māori rugby team in 1910. A national Māori team (now called the ‘Māori All Blacks’) has been assembled periodically since then. In a famous match in 1921 they lost to the Springboks 9–8. Their first northern-hemisphere tour, in 1926–27, was organised as compensation for the exclusion of Māori from the 1928 All Blacks tour of South Africa. On their seven-month tour the team won 30 of its 40 matches. In 2005 the national Māori team beat the British and Irish Lions, and in the centenary year of 2010 they defeated both England and Ireland.
Regional tournaments between Māori teams have also been played regularly.