Story: Rugby union

Page 3. The game spreads, 1870–1892

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Inter-provincial games

Old boys of English public schools persuaded football clubs to adopt the rugby rules in Auckland, South Canterbury and Otago, and they were important in spreading rugby in the 1870s. They had the time and money to travel to other centres to play the game, and these inter-regional rugby games were crucial in spreading the gospel and attaching local pride to the success of the rugby team. The elite encouraged and facilitated popular attendance at these games – when Auckland played Christchurch in 1875 in Cranmer Square, there were 3,000 spectators.

Changing environment

Other factors assisted the spread of the game:

  • the improvement in transport – regular steamship services between provincial centres and then railways (the 1878 Christchurch–Dunedin line allowed annual fixtures between the two provinces)
  • the building of private grounds such as Lancaster Park and Carisbrook, which facilitated the charging of admission and a revenue stream for the game
  • the growing practice of Saturday half-holidays, which were legally recognised by the Shops and Shop-assistants Act 1894.

By the mid-1880s rugby had spread from its elite urban beginnings into rural areas (where clubs often sprang up and disappeared quickly), and into the urban working class. By the mid-1890s there were more than 5,000 players and 300 clubs.

A violent game

Despite its elite origins, rugby initially had a reputation as violent and brutal. The game at first largely consisted of a protracted struggle for possession which often degenerated into fighting. There was much swearing. Rugby thrived in the male community – hotels were usually where rugby clubs were founded – and early rugby trips were opportunities for drinking, socialising and the singing of songs.

Rough and dangerous

In the 1870s there was much condemnation of rugby. When a player was killed in a club match in 1877, the coroner stated that ‘the game of football was only worthy of savages’1. The following year the New Zealand Herald declared, ‘Bull-baiting and cock-fighting have more to commend them as recreations than the rough-and-tumble amusement yclept [called] football which our youths seem to take so much delight in.’2

In the 1870s, the rules and even the size of teams varied. The organisation of provincial unions (beginning with Canterbury and Wellington in 1879) to facilitate interprovincial contests led to the standardising of rules. Referees were given authority and the use of a whistle. Hacking (stopping a player by kicking him) was abolished.

During the 1880s point scoring was modified to reward the scoring of tries, and when the British team visited in 1888 and interpreted the rules to allow heeling out from the scrum, passing and back play were encouraged. Back play was refined by the creation of the five-eighth system of alignment in the backs – an adaptation of the British ‘stand-off’ position – and of a wing forward, in effect a second halfback, whose presence ensured rapid delivery of the ball to the backs.

New Zealand Rugby Football Union

This civilising process climaxed with the formation of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892. This was partly to help organise the increasingly complex arrangements for interprovincial matches, and to arrange international contests with the Australian colonies. It was also to enforce higher standards of discipline and a code of strict amateurism, to avoid the game being defiled by gambling and the payment of players.

Rugby and the haka

The 1884 team (which wore blue jerseys) brought rugby and the haka together. The team manager and underwriter, Samuel Sleigh, recorded in his book about the tour that ‘future teams of Maorilanders, be they footballers, cricketers or athletes, will not do amiss in endeavouring to warm the cockles of their hearts by adopting the war-cry of the 1884 team of Rugby footballers – Kea Kaha! [kia kaha – be strong]’.3

First international tour

By this time international games had already begun, with Māori playing an important part. Māori had played the game from its earliest days – the first recorded Māori player, named Wirihana, took part in a match in Whanganui in 1872. The first national team chosen from Wellington, Auckland, Canterbury and Otago in 1884 for an eight-match visit to New South Wales included two Māori – Joe Warbrick and Jack Taiaroa, who was a great drawcard.

Natives tour

Warbrick was the principal organiser of the 14-month Native tour in 1888–89, which comprised 107 matches throughout New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain (plus 11 of Australian rules). Warbrick’s intention was for the team to be made up only of Māori, but to strengthen its competitiveness he included five Pākehā. The team was known as the Natives, although in fact one player was born in Victoria and one in England. They won 78 of their rugby games, drew six and lost 23. The Natives were the first to adopt specialised forward positions – an innovation for which the 1905 New Zealand team is usually given the credit – and they were the first to wear the black jersey with a silver fern leaf on the breast.

  1. Quoted in Arthur C. Swan, History of New Zealand rugby football 1870–1945: a complete and authentic history compiled under official sanction. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed for the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, 1948, p. 70. Back
  2. Quoted in History of New Zealand rugby football 1870–1945, p. 76. Back
  3. Samuel Sleigh, ed., The New Zealand Rugby Football Annual for 1885. Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1885, p. 27. Back
How to cite this page:

Ron Palenski, 'Rugby union - The game spreads, 1870–1892', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

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